A Place in the 'Sunset'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Nine years ago a little miracle happened. An American boy and a French girl met up on a train in Vienna and spent a wonderful day together talking about everything under the sun, slowly falling in love and eventually making love together in a park just before sunrise. They parted with youthful zeal, fully expecting serendipity to work its magic and allow them to meet once again, six months later, at a pre-determined time and place.
The miracle was a movie: Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. We were left to speculate what would happen in six months. Would the lovers forget about each other? Would they meet new people in the meantime? Some part of me didn't actually want to know; I would rather simply imagine some blissful romantic heaven.
Linklater re-visited his lovers briefly, in animated form, for a segment of Waking Life, but that was just the impetus for this next step. Now that reality has set in -- in the form of Richard Linklater's sequel Before Sunset -- it turns out to be just as blissful as anything I could have imagined.
Jesse (Hawke) has written a book about his previous romantic encounter and is now back in Paris for a publicity tour, signing autographs at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. Since the lovers never exchanged last names, Celine discovers Jesse's presence via a photo and turns up at the signing. Jesse only has about an hour before he must catch a plane, and so the pair heads to a cafe for a quick catch-up.
Unlike the first film, which scrunched its 24-hour time frame into a two-hour movie, the 80-minute Before Sunset happens more or less in real time. This time their talk has more urgency. The immortal vitality of youth has worn off a bit and they now know that every moment counts. In the previous film, Linklater sprinkled in colorful supporting characters to enhance the characters' date, but this time there's too much at stake for interruptions. It's just Jesse and Celine now.
It turns out that Celine failed to turn up at the rendezvous due to a dead grandmother, whose funeral was the same day. At first Jesse lies and tells her that he didn't turn up either, but the truth comes out. Celine also spent a few years in New York, and probably Jesse saw her one afternoon -- or someone who looked like her -- little dreaming that it was actually her.
The actors have aged naturally and gracefully over nine years, and Linklater provides a few brief glimpses of the previous film just to underline this. The film holds off on the obvious question for a good long while: do they still have a second chance? Perhaps not. Jesse is now married with a son -- though he claims to be unhappy with his wife -- and Celine is in a long-term relationship.
Jesse keeps cheating his time limit, calling his limo driver to meet them at the end of a boat ride that heightens the romantic and erotic tension the same way Stanley Donen did with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, by alternating water, air, light and shadow under a series of bridges.
Before Sunset just gets better and better as Linklater and his characters reveal more and more, perhaps growing more and more desperate with the approaching departure time. They finally end up in Celine's apartment for an ending every bit as powerful, delicate and beautiful as last year's Lost in Translation.
Both films share a wonderful breathless bravery very seldom found in today's cynical movie market, with an intimacy that perhaps only film can capture. Both films cradle the richest poetry of a longing glance or a well-told joke, with the camera itself acting as a kind of spiritual guide, closing in around the characters and placing them in new and revealing positions. Steadicam operator Jim McConkey does a remarkable job following the couple with several long, unbroken takes while rarely showing off or getting in their way. This is cinema of the most personal and heartbreaking order. It's as true as movies can get.
Hawke and Delpy are credited with the screenplay alongside Linklater, and the dialogue is instantly brilliant and perfectly sustained. It's all high-quality conversation, covering such topics as religion, life, death, mortality, music and literature but still sounding unforced and unwritten. We never question for a second that two intelligent friends would sound like this.
I seriously doubt that anything left on 2004's roster can compete with this remarkable new masterpiece from Richard Linklater. It's easily the film of the year.
DVD Details: Even though they have one of the year's best films, Warner Home Video's DVD is surprisingly skimpy. It comes with a pretty good little 10-minute making-of documentary that's unusually light on clips from the film, plus a terrific trailer. The film is available in its original English or dubbed into French (Delpy does her own French voice, of course), plus optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. That's Delpy's own lovely song that loops over the main menu. On startup, there are three trailers: Criminal, A Home at the End of the World and We Don't Live Here Anymore. Some fans have speculated that Warner is saving up to do a super-deluxe two-disc set with both movies and a bunch of extras.