With "Before Sunset," filmmaker Richard Linklater rapturously returns to a romance that took flight in his earlier film "Before Sunrise."
In that 1995 wisp of a story, a young American journalist, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and a younger Sorbonne student, Celine (Julie Delpy), meet on a European train and embark on a spellbound affair that takes them down narrow cobbled streets, across sweeping boulevards and finally into each other's arms. Day turns to night then dawn (hence the lyrical title), and the film ends with the lovers tearfully promising to meet again in six months.
There is something heroic about falling in love and something heroic too about making a film about falling in love, especially in an age of consuming cynicism and TV-made mating. Perhaps that's why although there's a fair amount of sex in our movies, so few take on romantic love (especially between a man and a woman) without the usual cutesy nonsense or noir-inflected menace. Our movies have become brilliant at death: We do murder exceptionally well. But there's something about life that seems to defeat many contemporary filmmakers, who jolt audiences with violence much as ER doctors apply electrical paddles.
Linklater whisks us to a different world in "Before Sunset," and in doing so reminds us there are other ways of making movies. Nine years after their affair, Jesse and Celine meet at a Paris book signing. He's fielding questions about his new novel, a roman à clef about young love, and from the way the two look at each other you know the last chapter has yet to be written. They exchange awkward hellos and steal off for coffee. This time they seem to know where they're headed: He's married, she has a boyfriend. But because they're older, a bit used up by life, and because the years have beautifully mellowed the actors and their director, the new walk takes us in an unexpected direction — a deeper, truer work of art than the first.
In "Before Sunset," Jesse and Celine confide their fears and dreams, revealing their greatest vulnerabilities. They don't wear their hearts on their sleeves — they hold them up for inspection, chancing ridicule and worse. As they meander through Paris' fifth arrondissement, a stone's throw from Notre Dame, they revisit their shared past and compare it with Jesse's novel, sketching in the intervening years. An editing sleight of hand whisks them across the Seine and into the still-more charming fourth arrondissement, where the conversation turns philosophical and playfully political. There's an interlude at the Pure Café, a flirty garden amble and a boat ride on the Seine, followed by a harrowing, shockingly emotional car trip in which Delpy brings you to laugher and tears — thereupon initiating the most sublime movie ending in years.
Winningly played by Hawke and with piercing intensity by Delpy, "Before Sunset" finds both actors mining hitherto unexplored depths. Some of this may be because of the collaborative nature of the screenplay, developed by the actors and Linklater over several years. There's the sting of truth to the couple's dialogue, which in contrast to that in "Before Sunrise" sounds as if it flows from life rather than favorite movies. Like many of his contemporaries, Linklater is a consummate cinéaste — Eric Rohmer informs the first film, and there's a touch of François Truffaut in this new one — but there's a gently bruised, lived-in aspect to the talk this time. Jesse and Celine's dead ends, hesitations and revelations remind you that few human endeavors are as touchingly hopeful as two people batting around words.
In a sense, "Before Sunset" is a movie about how we create selves just by talking. But it's also, as Jesse suggests at one point, about how we become prisoners of time. Years of habit, bad luck, missed opportunities and dashed expectations make it easy to forget that once upon a time the future was open and filled with promise. Nothing makes that point more movingly than the images of Jesse and Celine, taken from "Before Sunrise," that flash on-screen soon after the new film begins. The contrast between how Hawke and Delpy looked then and how they look now — faces whittled of baby fat and gravity pulling its weight — come as a shock. The years have had their way with them. But suggests Linklater — much like love — the movies have a way of defeating time.
For Linklater, "Before Sunset" represents a triumphant breakthrough. Since 1991, when his independent sleeper "Slacker" infiltrated the culture, the writer and director has yielded to a cinematic wanderlust, moving from genre to genre with varying success. Last year, he scored a mainstream hit with "School of Rock," proving he could work the studio machine with ease. Further commercial success may follow, but in the meantime, Linklater has with this new film given us the gift of a matured talent. Independent in every sense of that abused word, "Before Sunset" transcends the ordinary in great part because it takes love seriously, every kind of love, including movie love. And because Linklater now wears his heart on his sleeve, he has made a film that in its joy, optimism and aesthetic achievement keeps faith with American cinema at its finest.
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual references
Times guidelines: Adult language
Warner Independent Pictures and Castle Rock Entertainment present a Detour Filmproduction, released by Warner Independent Pictures. Director Richard Linklater. Writers Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. Story Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan. Based on characters created by Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan. Producer Anne Walker-McBay. Director of photography Lee Daniel. Editor Sandra Adair. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. In English and some unsubtitled French. In select theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times