A slow flirtation with a steady burn": that's what movie-maker Richard Linklater was after when he planned Before Sunset as an 80-minute amble through Paris with an American and a Frenchwoman.
The man is a novelist named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the woman is Celine (Julie Delpy), who inspired his new book with a life-altering one-night stand nine years before in Vienna (as chronicled in Linklater's 1995 film, Before Sunrise).
They were supposed to meet in Vienna again, six months after their first tryst. It didn't happen. Now she shows up at his book-signing and press conference at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. In the hour and 20 minutes before he's due to catch a return flight, they try to make up for lost time. Rarely has the concept of lost time had such a tangible, heart-twanging flavor. What they actually find out is whether what they shared was timeless.
"We always saw it as a gradual peeling away of the onion," said Linklater in a recent phone interview. Jesse and Celine approach each other with a tentative blend of curiosity and hopefulness. They swap world views and dating histories; she's seeing a war photojournalist, he has a schoolteacher wife and 4-year-old son. They talk a little dirty, then muse about the nature of men and women. Sometimes, what they say is funny or significant on its own.
As he did with the many voices in his scintillating 2001 cartoon, Waking Life, Linklater captures a genuine contemporary ambivalence. He focuses on Celine's pessimism about human society -- it stems from her work as an environmental activist -- and Jesse's belief that the world must be getting incrementally better, because these days people at least know what ecology is. But fueling all this talk is their need to rediscover each other.
"They're hiding the fact of just how much they feel," says Linklater, "so in that way, they're treading lightly. They're starting out superficially, just the way you would when you get reacquainted." But even if you haven't seen the first film -- or have seen it, and aren't a fan of it -- the soft afternoon light, the idyllic Parisian locales (a garden path, a Seine tourist boat), and the actors' ability to suggest emotional plasma bubbling beneath the surface, gets you pulling for them.
'Waking Life' vignette
Whatever deep personal catalyst there was to creating this intense emotional work remains hidden at the center of Linklater's own onion. He simply says that he, Delpy and Hawke loved working with each other on the first film (they share script credit with him on this one). Jesse and Celine re-appeared in a vignette in Waking Life, in which Celine suggested that reincarnation was a metaphor for the idea that people share a common spiritual background. (Issues of time and eternity appear to preoccupy Link-later.) That animated-feature reunion convinced this audacious trio that they'd experienced enough life to foster a sequel.
"It was the fall of '99 -- midway between these movies, when you look back on it. We got over our initial fears of repeating ourselves and felt that the years had given us something good to go on with. "
After that, several concepts misfired. "We could have done it in different cities, like New York. But when we hit on Paris as Celine's hometown, and him as a visiting novelist, their getting together became more believable. She lives in Paris, and he's there in a semi-public way."
The idea of doing it in "real time" -- 80 minutes flat, from their meeting in the bookstore to their moment of truth -- clinched their desire to do a second chapter. It also has enabled Linklater to speak of this romantic odyssey as a technical challenge and an aesthetic feat. "The emotional trajectory and the slow revelations are all like a pacing thing -- they were all planned out very specifically, and the real-time approach lends itself to that."
Linklater acknowledges that "for these characters to convince you of their rapport and understanding required Julie and Ethan to reach a level of reality that's pretty tough to achieve." This doesn't mean their work is autobiographical. "It required these actors to give a lot of themselves, and Julie and Ethan are both honest, searching types of artists. But there were all kinds of ideas floating in from everywhere. We kept pushing each other into new stuff. What made it fun was the gap between the design of the first movie and this movie."
'A living organism'
Linklater knew they could never compete with the up-front romanticism of Before Sunset. "We're contrasting the mystery of the night with the light of day, and kids who would make fun of adults who only have two-week vacations to people with real adult obligations. But the characters also became more upbeat and kind of loose -- because they are older, they are also able to joke about all kinds of things. And the core idea of it -- that two people can have this deep connection that has endured, no matter whether they admit it -- is wildly romantic."
And in a healthy, brain-clearing way, Before Sunset propels you to keep looking for the roots of make-believe. It's part of the movie's plan: Jesse talks of doing a book involving a 5-year-old daughter and an old girlfriend. We see him mentally flash on Celine, and later learn that he has a 4-year-old son. That should tell you, says Linklater, that "the drive of this movie is to find the truth behind the fiction."
Although Linklater prizes spontaneity, and wants his guidance of the actors to be like nurturing a living organism, "not rendering a living organism," he prefers to mine inspiration in rehearsal rather than in front of the camera, so he can make sure the smallest gesture fits "the bigger cinematic design." The moment when Celine reaches out to Jesse, then pulls back -- a coruscating, emotionally fraught piece of physical acting -- "is a good example of something that wasn't spontaneous at all. It was just like doing a play, with every little movement in place." Before Sunset offers a cascade of inspired touches, building to a slow, quiet walk into Celine's cozy courtyard and up the stairway to her apartment. It has the visual and emotional perfection of a dream that builds to its completeness through the night. But it unfolds during the end of the day, in Linklater's most brilliant and heartfelt depiction yet of waking life.