The second film in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Before Sunset (2004) allows us heartsick viewers to catch up with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) again – nine years after their initial romantic encounter in Before Sunrise (1995). Jesse is now a published author, and has been travelling around Europe on a whirlwind book tour. He’s giving a talk on his latest book to excited journalists in a bookshop in Paris, when a mysterious female meets his eye – Céline. After his talk finishes, Jesse only has until 7:30pm to spend time in Paris, until he has to leave for the airport. Jesse wonders if Céline would like to show him around for this short amount of time, roughly 80 minutes, until he has to leave her again. What happened during this nine years that we didn’t get to see? Did they ever catch up after their beautiful evening in Vienna? How that did night impact upon their lives? These questions and more are answered as we watch the two wander around the picturesque streets of Paris.
I have to firstly include a bit of personal reflection here. I loved the first film of this trilogy so much, and when it came to watching this second one, I was slightly wary of having high expectations. However, Before Sunset absolutely met my expectations, even though it was technically more of the same from our two lovebirds. I was initially concerned that the trilogy’s concept would get a bit ‘old’, despite people telling me the exact opposite. But in the film’s world it’s been nine years since we last saw Jesse and Céline, and I totally forgot about the concept itself when they started telling each other about their lives during that extensive gap of time. I’d formed an attachment to these characters after learning so much about them in the first film, and wanted to know what they were up to. Seeing how these characters have changed over time was supremely interesting, and it was satisfying to have my questions about their relationship answered as the time passed.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy continue to impress with their respective performances of Jesse and Céline. Jesse has grown up, and is slightly more world-weary rather than the youthfully cynical persona that we saw previously. Hawke consistently portrays Jesse in such a congruent way – the core personality of his character is the essentially the same, but he has developed beliefs and mannerisms over time that are a slight alteration to his youthful performance in 1995. The same can be said for Céline, who Delpy plays with similar mannerisms as her 1995 performance, but an increased layer of neuroticism and cynicism that Céline has developed as a direct result of her experiences with Jesse nine years ago. This aspect of the film was fascinating and I don’t think any lesser actors would be able to pull off nuanced performances such as these.
In my review for Before Sunrise, I noted that although the cinematography was stunning, and the city of Vienna was naturally and unintentionally gorgeous, I didn’t really notice the surrounds because the focus was squarely on the two characters and their interactions with one another. Again, in Before Sunset, Jesse and Céline are in the insanely beautiful city of Paris, and yet the focus isn’t on the city itself. We don’t see the Eiffel Tower, nor the Arc de Triomphe, nor any other famous Paris landmarks – except for a posterior view of Notre Dame as they float past on a river cruise boat. Paris isn’t the focus here, it’s the vehicle for these two characters to meet and learn about one another again whilst sipping coffee at a nice cafe, whilst wandering the picturesque streets, or taking a river cruise down the Seine. It doesn’t really matter exactly where the characters are located, since that’s not really essential to the development of the story. This is a pretty brave choice by director Linklater, as I’m sure some viewers might be surprised and disappointed that they don’t get to see enough of Paris. But, again, the film is not really about that – it’s about Jesse and Céline. The film’s direction is just as simplistic and minimalist as ever, with some sublime tracking shots as the two are walking through the streets. It also goes without saying that the dialogue is excellent.
This film suffers from the same potential disadvantage as the first one – if you don’t like films where the story and drama is established mainly through talking and discussing issues, this probably isn’t for you. But if you love films with the best example of character development you’ll see in ages, this is just plain great.
However, I have to take this moment to discuss something that’s a bit of a spoiler. If you’ve seen this film, please highlight the paragraph below and the spoilers shall appear as if by magic.
The ending to this film is extremely abrupt – it fades out after Jesse has gone up to Céline’s apartment and they’re listening to some Nina Simone (her apartment has some lovely interior desig as well). What happened next?! I know it’s meant to be left to our imagination, and will most likely be addressed in the last film of the trilogy, but I don’t generally deal well with abrupt endings like this, particularly when I’m attached to the characters. I think I actually said “What?! No!” out loud after it ended. This is partially a positive and partially a negative aspect of the film – my sad response is positive because I was loving the film so much that I wanted it to continue, and yet this gave me a pervasive feeling of abandonment and distress that coloured my perception of the film as a whole. At the same time, it was the perfect ending, because it made me want to see more. And whilst we’re still in spoiler town, the angry meltdown that Céline had where she’s attacking Jesse for how he essentially ruined her relationships with other men since their initial encounter was totally heartbreaking and an example of Julie Delpy’s amazing performance in this film.
The last film of the trilogy, Before Midnight (2013), is next, and I almost don’t want to watch it because I’m not ready for the story of these characters to be over. That’s how positively I feel about this film, and these characters. During this film it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie, it feels like you’re eavesdropping on a particularly interesting and juicy, but also moving and emotionally raw, conversation between two interesting people. Sometimes the middle film in a trilogy isn’t as good as the films that surround it (except for in the Godfather trilogy), but this one met with my expectations that were set up by the first film, and it was fascinating and satisfying to see where the characters had gotten to after nine years. Who knows where they’ll be after the next nine years?
Watch the trailer here.
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