A decade ago I couldn’t wait to see Before Sunrise. I loved Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Ethan Hawke was the cocky yet sensitive Gen X posterboy, Julie Delpy was cute and French and the idea — boy meets girl on a train in Vienna and they spend the night walking and talking — was the perfect romance. Somehow it didn’t quite live up to expectations: perhaps Jesse (Hawke) was too annoying; perhaps Céline (Delpy) was too wet; perhaps there was something not quite engaging about the dialogue. Despite this, the film floated about me ever since, pushing into my thoughts, weedling its way toward being one of my favourite films, in theory if not in fact.
And it’s the theory, the concept, that’s most appealing. I can’t be the only person to dream about meeting a stranger and feeling the world fall into place. What would happen? Would this be it, would you never part? Or would it be a brief flirt, something you’d look back on, imagining the chances missed, the alternate lives you might have led? Even though I’m no longer single (and very happily so), it’s a powerful story for eternal romantics.
When I heard Linklater was making a sequel, Before Sunset, I was, to my surprise, pleased. I thought I’d dread it — maybe this would ruin the memory, still floating around after all these years. But I realised I wanted to know what happened to Jesse and Céline, the same reason, I assume, the director and stars decided to make the film. I wasn’t disappointed and I watched them meet again with my mouth open and tears welling. I had considered watching the first movie again, to refresh my memory, but I’m glad I didn’t; my memories of that Vienna night are vague, and I struggled to remember exactly what had happend, just as Jesse and Céline argued about the past events. Keeping that night a distant event was much more in keeping with the whole experience.
Of course, it’s this real-time gap between that chance encounter in 1995 and this year’s meeting which gives so much more weight to the film. If the sequel had appeared in, say, 1997 not enough time would have passed, we wouldn’t have been carrying our wonder around for so long. The longer the gap, the less sure we are about what will happen, and what’s happened between then and now.
As Jesse and Céline meet again, images from that magical night play briefly, like fragments of memory, bringing home just how much their appearances have changed, and hence how much life has passed. We get so used to actors slapping on make up in order to age, that seeing them acquire genuine signs of the passing years is a shock of realism. The only similar, but reverse, example I can recall is Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, in which a silver-haired Terence Stamp avenges his daughter’s death in LA. At the end of the film we see clips from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, shot 32 years earlier, with a young Stamp and a baby daughter. It’s really him, this character really has a history and we’ve merely been watching through a little window onto his life; he wasn’t conjured up simply to exist for 100 minutes of screen time.
Aside from all this — the romance, the passing years, the wondering of what has happened and what will happen — the film also has great acting and dialogue. Normal speech is a muddle, a mix of sentence fragments and hesitations, repetitions and interruptions. Read a transcript of a real life conversation and it’s nothing like a film script. But we’re so used to the way characters in movies speak — in complete, coherent sentences — that it seems perfectly normal. Before Sunset manages to combine this unnaturally eloquent conversation with verbal and behavioural tics that make it seem like a real conversation between people comfortable with one another. The fleeting, jokey insults young friends inflict on each other as a matter of course, almost like punctuation. Interrupting one another mid-sentence to ask for a cigarette. It feels like the dialogue has come out of improvisation, but with enough polish to retain the unreal romanticism. Coupled with the real-time nature of the filming — there are no cuts away to jump forward in time — you’re really there as the couple wander through Paris, exploring what’s happening to them.
So, if you have a romantic streak, do go. But if you haven’t seen the first film yet, do your utmost to travel back to 1995 and see it then.