Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Rating: * * * ½
Before Sunrise was then, Before Sunset is now. Then, with their lives spread in front of them, two twentysomethings met by accident and hovered by design - for one long night, in Vienna, walking and talking, until the morning came and, exchanging no addresses but trusting to fate, they vowed to reconnect in six months. Now, nine years later, their paths cross once more and they tarry again - for one short afternoon, in Paris, walking and talking, always talking. For them, for us, the wonder is this: The second time rivals the first. This is a sequel just as intriguing as the original.
The main cast members have returned - Ethan Hawke as Jesse the American, Julie Delpy as Céline the Frenchwoman - along with director Richard Linklater. Together, they've collaborated on a script that retains the same verbal energy but adds an engaging new wrinkle: This picture unfolds in real time - its 80-plus minutes are the exact length of the couple's encounter. The circumstances that unite them have a nice ring of inevitability. Jesse has just published his first novel, largely based on that evening in Vienna. He's touring Europe to promote it, and we see him during a book-signing at the celebrated Shakespeare & Company. So does Céline who, having read about the event, has come to take a peek. "Your book sounded vaguely familiar," she jokes. Not due at the airport for another hour or so, he suggests a coffee, and she leads the way.
Thus the movie begins, although not before Linklater inserts a very brief flashback to the first film - just long enough to let us measure the physical changes in the characters (and the actors) over the interim. That's a crucial decade, from the 20s to the 30s, and their faces, like their lives, have begun to harden into fixed patterns. The once-Byronic sweep of his hair has given way to a harsher cut, and his forehead has developed a furrow or two. Her beauty is still considerable, but it's a more mature dazzle - slightly leaner, a bit rigid, not quite as soft.
Of course, they're sizing each other up too, in stolen glances, as Linklater's camera follows them on their Parisian promenade. The backdrop is predictably glorious - through the narrow labyrinth of the Latin Quarter, along the broad expanse of the Seine. And their conversation is alluringly Rohmer-esque - the shifting amalgam of talk at its best. Moving from the particular to the general and back again, it's tentative, joking, precious, passionate, pretentious, disingenuous. And something else also. Since this is a man and a woman who made love on that long-ago night, their exchanges are charged with a flirtatious sexual tension - minus the tension, their words would have meaning but no urgency.
But the clock is ticking down. They hit on the touchy subject of their failed reunion in Vienna - who didn't show up, and why? They circle up to the present, careful to stay on relatively impersonal ground - comparing their jobs, their values, nothing too intimate. Naturally, in today's charged political atmosphere, the script invites us to view them as national icons, but then rescinds the invitation - he's not an ugly American imperialist, nor is she a smug French chauvinist. They're conditioned by their culture, without being imprisoned in it - they're just citizens of the world.
Then, about the halfway mark, the twist comes - can't divulge the details, but there's a revelation, casually dropped into the conversation, that he's acquired some considerable baggage, serious entanglements. This prompts a near-immediate shift in tone. What had been verbal foreplay escalates to a shared climax, as, in turn, they both give vent to a burst of naked emotional honesty. Since Vienna, each has made choices, and choice entails compromise, and compromise has left its residue of ambivalence. So the reunion has sparked their own flashback, compelling them to gauge the differences between then and now - where the polish of happiness has survived, where the rust of sadness has spread and solidified.
"There are only a very few people you connect with," they agree. And their connection was real, is real.
But it's also become a symbol for them of an elusive ideal that we all carry inside and that the passing years only seem to magnify - the "what if" romance, the "what if" life. Where, then, does their genuine connection end and the cheap fantasy begin? As the minutes dwindle, that's their dilemma, although time has already introduced a bias, poignantly summarized by Céline: "Reality and love are now almost contradictory to me."
Obviously, acting itself embraces a similar tension - between the real and the feigned - and the performers blur that boundary beautifully here. You sense that, in contributing to the script, Hawke and Delpy have drawn on their own experiences, and the result is a rarity - a fictional romance with a factual feel, a near-documentary quality that makes it difficult to distinguish the actor from the role. Linklater enhances that illusion with his hand-held camera and his sedate pacing - seldom has a shortish feature been given so much breathing room. He's developed into quite an eclectic talent, a director able to range from the charged beginnings of Slacker though the innovative experiment of Waking Life to the commercial safety of School of Rock.
As for Sunrise and Sunset, they make for delightful companion-pieces, motion pictures that double as precise snapshots - that was then and this is now, that was youth rampant and this is age emerging. Each ends as it must, ambiguously, with the mixed promise of more life to come and the certain threat of less life to live.