Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
A lot of film have ambiguous or open-ended conclusions and sequels to such films can be tricky because sometimes the "unanswered" aspect of the ending is a large part of what makes a film so strong in the first place. Richard Linklater's 1994 romance Before Sunrise is a pretty much universally beloved film, the kind of lightning in a bottle project that becomes one of the defining films of its kind. Releasing a follow-up could have been disastrous, a film that at best failed to live up to the promise of the original, and at worst tarnished the original by virtue of the connection. Instead, Before Sunset actually improved on its predecessor, presenting a perhaps less idealistic vision of its characters, but a more mature and, in many ways, more resonant picture of them.
Before Susnet is set nine years after Before Sunrise and finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Paris, promoting a book he's written based on his experiences during that one amazing night in Vienna. While doing an interview with some journalists at a book store, Celine (Julie Delpy) appears and, once the Q&A is over, she and Jesse decide to grab a cup of coffee and catch up. The big question, of course, is whether they met again six months after the events of Before Sunrise and the answer is not "no," exactly, but "no, but..." Celine had had every intention of returning to Vienna but the death of her grandmother prevented her. Jesse did show up and spent a few days waiting for her, even going so far as to leave signs around the train station hoping she'd see them. Since they never exchanged addresses or phone numbers or even last names, there was no way for either to contact the other and so now here they are, nine years later, their lives having taken on completely different shapes, but the connection between them still there.
Jesse has a plane to catch that will take him back to the States, and he and Celine opt to spend a couple of hours walking around Paris and talking. They speak in generalities at first and slowly start to circle more personal topics. Celine has a boyfriend whose job requires him to be absent frequently, which she rather likes, and Jesse is married, albeit unfulfilled, and has a young son whom he adores. They learn that they were both living in New York at the same time, though they never crossed paths there except that Jesse has long been convinced that he saw her going into a deli on the day he got married. There's unfinished business between them, obviously, and they wonder if maybe they were meant to be together, if the lives they've been leading in each other's absence have been mere counterfeit. Jesse has a plane to catch, but keeps finding ways to put off going to the airport, leading to an ending that is every bit as ambiguous as that of Before Sunrise.
Written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, Before Sunset has a wonderfully lived-in, naturalistic feel to it. It is essentially just two people talking for an hour and a half, but it moves at a good and engaging pace. It helps that both Hawke and Delpy are actors who are gifted when it comes to dealing with language, making potentially mundune conversations seem fascinating, and striking a fine balance between what is being said, and what is still being held back. Jesse and Celine tell us a lot about themselves through the content of the dialogue, but Hawke and Delpy fill in a lot of blanks through the beats and rhythms of that dialogue and through body language. Before Sunset is a "simple" film - the premise is uncomplicated, it follows only two characters and only for a limited time - but its simplicity is part of its beauty and a huge part of its charm. There's nothing flashy about this movie, it's just a great story about two characters that you truly want to know more about and spend more time with.
Before Sunset invites the question, "What happens next?" and so it's no surprise that word of a third film has been making the rounds pretty much since this one hit theaters in 2004. There's still no hint about when that might actually come to fruition, but it feels safe to say that it's eagerly anticipated. The bar was set pretty high with this one but, then again, the bar was already pretty high in the first place thanks to Before Sunrise and its obvious that Linklater, Hawke and Deply make a pretty great trio.