When we last left Celine and Jesse, they were naive twenty-somethings who'd discovered Vienna, and each other, in a single night of youthful passion. Before Sunrise (1995) might have been the end of their love story. But after nine years, and a chance to revisit these characters, director Richard Linklater, and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, decided to risk the perfection of that film with a sequel of sorts. In doing so, they have created something truly lovely, not only as a post-script, but in and of itself.
Before Sunset takes place nine years later, in Paris this time. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has written a book about that romantic night long ago, fictionalizing his memory of it into a best-selling novel. And here he is, charming and sincere, in Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore meeting with reporters. This is the last stop on his promotional tour, with a plane taking off in a couple of hours that will whisk him back to America.
And then, like a ghost, she walks in.
Celine (Julie Delpy) has changed of course. But when their eyes meet, and having set up the story of the love that got away, of the appointment they did not keep to see each other again, they have to know. Was their first meeting just youthful fervor? Or was it real? They have a little over an hour to find out for sure. And catch up. And see.
Talk is cheap. Good conversation is hard to find. But the dialogue between these two former lovers as they meander through the back streets of Paris is as haunting as a song. In real time, from the moment they leave the bookstore to the last frame, they slowly reveal themselves. And at the core of it, we learn, they still see life through the prism of that night; and they are the only two people on the planet (besides us) who understand why. As we watch for signs, we have to know: Are they still in love? And if they are, what are they going to do about it? The tension of that question anchors all the clever talk of global politics and relationships, memories and regrets. Love hangs in the balance.
And it's riveting.
The brisk 80 minutes of their reunion is at turns funny, wistful and wise. The screenplay (written by all three principals) is beautifully structured, and all of it is planned down to the second, including every gesture and smile and furtive glance. But you would never know it, for it feels made up on the spot, natural and real. The "bad guy" appears just when the bad guy always appears and begins to close in in every well-structures script -- right at the midpoint -- when it is revealed that Jesse is married and has a son he loves. Yet when he recounts his marriage, and the sad steps leading up to it, it's clear that his wife was his second choice and that Celine has always been, will always be, his dream girl. There are ways out of this still we find. They can be together again. But there is that plane Jesse has to catch, and the limo driver, a shadow on the periphery, waiting to take Jesse away. Should he go like the last time? Or should he stay and know for sure?
At its best moments, Before Sunset is like visiting with an old friend who has something to say and precious little time to say it. And the back streets of Paris are evocative of a romantic illusion that soul mates might actually exist and even have the power to save one's soul -- or at least mend one that is broken. Hawke and Delpy inhabit these characters fully and are charming and handsome people. And Delpy's Nina Simone impersonation that rounds out the finale and leads to film-ending cliffhanger is hilarious and not to be missed. Neither is the waltz Celine sings to Jesse (an original song by Delpy) one she wrote, just like the book Jesse wrote about that night. For it seems that despite all the adult successes they've piled up in life, despite the reasoned cynicism they have acquired like so much pretty armor, they still believe they were at their best when they were with each other. And it may not be too late to have it again.
The final fadeout of this film drew gasps and cheers of delight from the audience I saw it with. It not only leaves open the possibility of more installments to this story, but also points up the power of good storytelling -- especially when we care about the people involved and what is at stake. You don't need to know the first film to enjoy this one. Before Sunset stands alone as a wonderful modern love story and as a sequel to Before Sunrise, we can only hope for further episodes to come.