They are two of the loveliest films I’ve ever seen.
A movie that consists almost exclusively of two people talking is a rare and precious thing — lacking any kind of desperation to excite or manipulate an audience, content to share and observe. When Richard Linklater made Before Sunrise in 1995, this concept wasn’t unheard of in cinema, but it still stood out (or rather, sat quietly) among the bulk of Hollywood and even independent films. Even so, something about the film stuck, both with a small but devoted audience and with the three people most responsible for making it: Linklater and his actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Nine years later, they got a sequel made, Before Sunset. With yet another sequel, my most anticipated movie of the year, just completed and taking its sweet time getting to where I can see it (it will open in my state on June 14 — at the moment it’s playing in New York, L.A. and Linklater’s hometown of Austin, Texas), there’s no better time to catch up with these two films.
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are about romantic love. They are about cross-cultural connections. They are about seizing opportunities before time runs out. Above all else, they are about great conversations. The stories, memories, dreams, ideas, theories, arguments, and jokes that Jesse and Celine share are a model for establishing and maintaining rapport. Particularly in the first movie, which I find I still prefer to the second (we’ll get to why later), there really isn’t a single part of their marathon discussion that I don’t find memorable, evocative, poignant, or funny, and often a mix of those.
Here’s the straightforward setup: an American man and a French woman, both in their early twenties, meet on a train to Vienna and start talking. When the train stops, he decides he wants to keep talking to her and asks her to get off the train with him, even though she’s on her way home to Paris. She agrees, and they just walk around the city for the rest of the day and into the night, ostensibly killing time until his flight back to America the next morning. What they end up doing is pretty much the opposite of “killing time.” They spend those hours falling for each other.
On paper, it’s as slight as it can be, but as experienced on the screen, it’s an ecstatic dream of a movie. And “dreamlike” is a good term for it. However young and naïve Jesse and Celine might be, they recognize just as well as we in the audience do how unlikely their situation is. There’s a great moment just after they get off the train, and it’s the only line from either film that I’ll quote here: they’re walking on a bridge, and Jesse says, “This is a nice bridge.” These two people have just been talking at length about parents, growing up, death and the afterlife — the conversation never hit a snag even as they shared very personal stories and fears. Finally, they experience a little bit of awkwardness, a little everyday uncertainty as to what to say next. We’ve already seen these characters make an uncommonly strong connection practically at first sight, and now we’re reminded that they’re human. The awkwardness passes quickly, however.
The cast is my idea of perfection. Hawke is full of life, passion, and wit. I relate to his character in so many ways. Yes, there is some youthful arrogance to him (which matures into weariness in the second film), but he’s getting over a break-up. Over the course of the movie, he must learn to abandon the naïve cynicism he picked up in the wake of that pain. So he’s great, but Delpy always blows me away. She gets under his skin almost immediately, and her reaction shots on the train communicate the act of falling in love even better than the dialogue. She seems to have this reservoir of wisdom and experience within her that balances out his impetuosity. They’re both immensely attractive, of course. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its patience in allowing them to delve beneath each other’s surface qualities and really learn about each other before the relationship gets serious.
I can count on one hand the movies I enjoy more than Before Sunrise. Its simple beauty and abundance of ideas always captivate me. Which holds the sequel up to an incredible standard. A great many people think Before Sunset is better than its predecessor. They might be right. I can see the argument. The sequel adds nine years to these characters’ lives, making them more complex and mature — wounded from a life that could never live up to that one magical night, finding they cannot forget each other but have been forced to move on. The story is about two people slowly spiraling down toward the raw emotional wounds in each other’s hearts. The scene in which they finally get there is the best scene in either film. But on the whole, I still hold the first film closer to my heart, although I love them both intensely.
Before Sunset makes the struggle with time even more intense than Before Sunrise. The first film meanders somewhat — one of its greatest joys is in exploring the beauty of Vienna. Although Jesse and Celine have only one day together, they’re still both very young and are really only beginning their adult lives. Nine years later, they’ve had some time to acquire regrets and now realize just how rare is the connection they made in the first film. Time has already started to slip away. The events of the sequel transpire in real time, as the two try to catch up with each others’ lives and Jesse keeps delaying yet another trip to the airport. With the added pressure of saying what they need to say in a little over an hour, they often come close to rekindling the old spark but then push too hard or back off. Their interactions are extremely volatile, particularly when compared to the first film, in which they often change the subject when they find themselves disagreeing. The question hanging over everything is where the relationship can go from here.
When I see one of my favorite movies, sometimes I can’t help but feel just a hint of melancholy when it’s about to end. Realizing that this great experience couldn’t last forever, knowing that the next time I see it I’ll be a little older but the movie will be the same, I’m drawn to think of the passage of time, how the past is always there in the memory but always out of reach. No movie I’ve seen directly addresses this sadness like these two. In both films, the plot calls for the two characters to part when the movie ends, having spent mere hours together. As the films approach their conclusions, the tension of the coming separation dovetails with the experience of the end of a story, compounding the emotional payoff. Both endings offer the hope of continuation, uncertain though the future may be. These movies are both wise and optimistic. I find that an irresistible combination — as irresistible as love itself.