Like the characters in Before Sunrise, director Richard Linklater’s late-night escapade served as an important turning point in his life. But while Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Céline decided to reconvene six months after their magical night, Linklater and the story’s real-life inspiration kept in touch. Their correspondence soon fizzled, as do most things in our youth, but he also hoped that she would watch their story unfold through his eyes and show up to a screening one day. Jesse hoped the same with This Time, the book he eventually wrote about his night with Céline, and lo and behold! One fine evening on the Parisian leg of his book tour, their second meeting would come to pass.
Some films don’t need sequels, and if you haven’t seen Before Sunset, I wouldn’t blame you for deeming it unnecessary. The first film is arguably a landmark for cinematic romance, where two lost souls foregather in a foreign city and depart with a new lease on life, uncertain of whether or not they’ll meet again. If you’ve read thus far you’ll know that they do, and that it wasn’t at that train station in Vienna six months later. My apologies for breaking the illusion, but that’s part and parcel of what Before Sunset is. A retrospective, both on Jesse and Céline’s idyllic encounter, and on the paths their lives have taken since.
In true sequel fashion, they spend the film's length walking around a European city, counting down the hours until one of them has to leave. This time it’s Jesse, whose flight back to the United States leaves in a matter of hours, and the feeling of time counting down is amplified since the film takes place in real time. Meticulously shot over a period of fifteen days, the entire film takes place at dusk (or as the title suggests, before sunset) and rather than building a foundation together, the duo must recap and unpack nine years worth of life lived before they never see each other again. Nine years. That’s how long it was between the two productions as well, and with both lead actors joining Linklater and Kim Krizan to work on the screenplay, the lives they had all lived would no doubt come into play. Julie Delpy wrote and performed a couple of Céline’s songs, and much like his character Jesse, Ethan Hawke’s marriage wasn’t in the best place at the time. In fact, it ended just a few weeks prior to the film’s release.
The film comes from a very real, very painful place. In fact the characters themselves have become downright cynical. They don’t show it at first, spending their initial moments nervously catching up as the reality of their bizarre situation catches up to them. They were two young, beautiful souls who, when they most needed direction, seemed to find it in each other for a moment before eventually going astray. This time however, they’re weathered and weighed down, and their meeting wasn’t an accident. In fact, the knowledge that Jesse would be in town and at her favourite book store drudged up some real issues for Céline, who seems desperate to re-capture the optimism she had at the time. While the details seemingly escape her, Jesse has harped on them for almost a decade, building a career off his perspective on their shared memories and holding on to them through his failing marriage.
Despite their less-than-ideal romantic lives, the duo hit it off as if no time had passed, joking and jabbing at each other like it was still 1994. They’re a perfect fit, but they’re also each other’s ones that got away. While the film was shot in order, and takes place largely as a single conversation – as if it were being dreamed into existence – it’s the kind of snap back to reality from the lucid Before Sunrise that seems (and in many ways, is) completely antithetical. Its opening is the equal yet opposite of the last film’s final images, skimming over locales that Jesse and Céline will soon visit, but in reverse order. The future is as foggy as the present for these two, and it seems their only recourse is to investigate the past. Where did they go wrong, and what could they have done differently?
Jessie showed up in Vienna in the December of ’94, and while Céline had meant to be there, fate decided to snatch her grandmother from her just days earlier – the same grandmother she’d been visiting when she and Jessie first met. While Jessie idealized their night together and poured every moment of it into his work, flying all the way to Europe only to be left alone in the cold changed something within him. While he made it as a writer, gone was the poet inside of him, the little boy unafraid to believe in love. He wasn’t the only one whose ideas of romance ended up broken. Céline’s luck involved boyfriend after boyfriend breaking up with her only to end up married, as if she were a stepping stone but never anyone’s ‘The One.’ In fact, her string of unhappy endings lead to her giving up on the idea of soul mates altogether. But perhaps all this heartbreak was necessary for them to finally recognize their youthful naïvete, starting with the fact that they should’ve exchanged numbers.
Jessie still quotes other people’s philosophies, but rather than posturing, he does so to avoid having to explain his own. He seems much more put together, just like Céline, and you could easily mistake their reunion for a business lunch from a distance, if you weren’t intimately familiar with their history. And what a history it was, even after they’d lost touch. They both lived in New York at different times, overlapping for a year in between, and Jessie may have even spotted Céline on the way to his own wedding. Or perhaps that’s just what he wanted to see. Their lives weren’t without fulfillment of course, and for every regret, they also found something they’d always dreamed about. Jessie has a son who gives his life meaning, the kind of meaning he’d been searching for throughout his first trip through Europe. Céline spent several of her years travelling and helping people, channeling her frustrations with the systems around her. And as much as they decry their past stupidity and the youthful ideas of romance that had once defined them, they talk about themselves in mature and even profound ways without realizing it.
They speak of materialism, mostly in terms that are conversational or academic, but their focus on figuring out how to forego desire (or channel it) reveals a more helpless state. They speak of memory and its pervasive nature, like a story never finished, unintentionally longing for their own next chapter to be written. On their final detour, where Jessie drops Céline off once more, she hugs him to see if he’ll dissolve, like the people in the paintings they viewed in Vienna. And it’s here that Jessie realizes something, perhaps something he’d always known. They walk up to Céline’s apartment as she embraces her pet cat, as motherly as she’d been in his dreams. Once they arrive, she sings him one of her songs. While Jessie’s takes the form of obsession and Céline’s is abruptly compartmentalized, they’ve both dealt with their biggest regret in life by turning one another into art. Like his book, her song talks of holding on while being broken, and it’s here during its final minutes that the film shows its hand.
Everything that came before has been heart-wrenching, with characters who have experienced life to fullest, at its best and its worst, and the hope they once had has been shattered. But that’s not the end. That change within them is not final. The film wants you to feel their longing, for each other and for the drive they once had, and it wants you to lament the loss of their optimism. They hold on to it through art like a last resort, until the all important realization: it’s not too late. It’s never too late to get back to that place. Where you can see life’s burdens as manageable no matter how much they weigh you down. Where no matter what toll time has taken, you feel like you’ve found the strength to fight back. Where you’re comfortable enough to make fun of yourself around others, and share a part of yourself with once more. Where, like Céline, you no longer need to convince yourself that you’re happier alone. Where, like Jesse, your home can finally have laughter again.
“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”