Together Again 

Richard Linklater s beautiful Before Sunset.

Richard Linklater s Before Sunset is quite simply one of the most beautiful films I ve ever seen.
In 1995, the director paired Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise as two traveling college students eager American Jesse (Hawke) and cerebral Frenchie Celine (Delpy). They meet on a train to Vienna and decide to spend a night together roaming the city before Jesse s flight home the next day. They share a magical, romantic night and make a pact the next morning to meet again at the train station in exactly six months. Nine years later, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit these characters, who never kept that appointment in Vienna and whose lives have developed on separate tracks.
Before Sunset opens with Jesse conducting a book signing at a Paris shop. His debut novel, a minor bestseller in the U.S., is a fictionalized account of his night with Celine. Toward the end of his signing, he spots Celine at the back of the store. They haven t spoken since saying goodbye in Vienna a decade earlier, and with only an hour or so between Jesse s book signing and his flight out of Paris, he and Celine go for a walk to catch up.
Linklater stages this simple scenario with a rhythmic grace that is subtle yet overwhelming. Tracking shots endless, gorgeous tracking shots through winding Paris streets alternate with static scenes in a cafÇ and on a riverboat as Jesse and Celine get reacquainted in one unbroken conversation.
Before Sunrise was a youthful, romantic film, but time has deepened the emotional impact of this relationship. Hawke and Delpy know each other and their characters better now. Because Before Sunrise was so open-ended, it feels as if these actors have been carrying the characters around with them in the intervening years, as Linklater clearly has, his ardor for Jesse and Celine apparent when he gave them a scene in Waking Life.
I don t want to give too many details away, because learning about these characters as they learn about each other is one of the central joys of the film. Needless to say, their conversation this time is more reflective than anticipatory and perhaps more moving as a result, though the pair are certainly less earnest and more experienced now. (Jesse s book leaves the question of whether the two meet again open, just as the first film did. But Jesse does confess that he wrote a fictional ending he decided not to use: We make love for 10 days straight and then realize it isn t going to work, he says. I like that. It s more real, Celine replies.)
There are physical differences, which Linklater underscores with a flashback scene that reminds viewers about the younger Jesse and Celine. (Or informs them. You can love Before Sunset even if you haven t seen the original film.) Hawke has such a deeply furrowed brow that Celine mistakes it for a scar, while Delpy is considerably thinner, a fact that Jesse comments on. ( You thought I was a fatty! You wrote a book about a fat French girl! Celine exclaims.) And recent events have added more subtext to the pair s French/American courtship. ( I m glad to find you re not one of those freedom fries kind of Americans, Celine says when the conversation turns to politics.)
But the primary difference comes simply from an extra decade of life experience and the way the lingering memory of their earlier meeting has stayed with them, and haunted them, through subsequent life changes. Celine sums it up: I remember that night better than I do some years.
Richard Linklater has quietly become one of America s best and most versatile filmmakers. Just look at his last three films: the animated formal experiment Waking Life, the ostensibly conventional studio comedy School of Rock, and now this radiant romance. Three entirely different films, each fully realized. Is there another filmmaker in America who could match such a string?
Though Linklater s films reveal a startling variety, they also exhibit a set of recurring themes and formal strategies. Linklater s characters are the most loquacious in American movies, but the talkiness of his films isn t at all like the hipster spiels you ll find in the work of similarly chatty directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. Linklater s talk isn t a form of showing off but is instead very natural, and it isn t grounded in cultural riffing but in life as experienced and examined; it s the sound of smart, sometimes pretentious (and intentionally so) people struggling to grasp the world around them. To give form to the wonder and desire and aggravation and anxiety that fuels them.
Linklater is also interested in compressed forms and spare, continuous narratives. Think of Slacker s chain-linked conversations and Waking Life s similarly connected musings, of the tight timelines of SubUrbia and Dazed and Confused, of the real-time structure of Tape, which also stars Hawke and which takes place entirely in a hotel room. Before Sunset may well be the ultimate expression of these career-long concerns.
The structure of Before Sunset is much more focused and thought out than that of its predecessor and works perfectly with the film s story and dialogue a flawless, riveting connection of form to content, which might be the one thing that all great films have in common. (And I don t make that claim lightly. I think that Before Sunrise is a lovely, lyrical film, but Before Sunset is a full-blown great one.)
Before Sunset s tightly controlled structure of alternating static and moving scenes sitting and walking, constantly talking doesn t draw attention to itself but is crucial to the film s success. This structure keeps the film-long conversation moving. (Imagine if the entire conversation had occurred in a coffee shop; viewers might be more likely to grow visually bored and disconnect from the material.) But this deliberate structure (compared to the relatively scattered, wandering Before Sunrise) hones one s attention on the conversation and on the details of Jesse and Celine s interaction.
Working in conjunction with this visual strategy is the fact that Before Sunset runs in real time. Before Sunrise was a 100-minute film covering a deadline-limited 12-hour date. Before Sunset is an 80-minute film covering a deadline-limited 80-minute catch-up session, and because we experience this meeting under the same time constraints as the characters, our sense of the gravity and delicacy of the situation is heightened as well.
If Beyond Sunset is sparer structurally, it is also less cluttered with characters. In the earlier film, Jesse and Celine meet a string of colorful passersby. Here, there is no time to focus on anyone or anything other than each other. Because the clock is always running on Jesse and Celine, their words tumble out with hurried, excited desperation. Every second every moment, every look, every utterance is intensified, both for the actors and the audience.
Before Sunrise was written by Linklater along with partner Kim Krizan. The screenplay here is credited to Linklater and his two leads, implying an investment and improvisation from Hawke and Delpy deeper than that in the first film, and this difference is palpable in every frame of Before Sunset.
Jesse and Celine s conversation intensifies as their time begins to run out, becomes rawer and more agitated. There s a terribly moving, excruciatingly beautiful moment as Jesse has his limo driver drop Celine at her apartment on the way to the airport. Jesse turns his head to look out the window and Celine reaches up to stroke his hair, only to pull her hand away before he notices. (This also rhymes with perhaps the most memorable scene from Before Sunrise, when Jesse and Celine stand inside a record-store listening booth and exchange furtive glances, desperately, helplessly trying to steal glimpses of each other without the other noticing.)
But there s no way Linklater will let this story end with such certainty. A magical detour sets up an appropriately mysterious finale and one of the great snap endings in film history, up there with Vertigo or Some Like It Hot. Has Before Sunset been a long walk to forever or just to the airport? I m giving nothing awayn


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