Richard Linklater’s second installment in his Before trilogy picks up nine years after the first chance encounter between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). The environment shifts from Vienna to Paris. Their adolescence has matured. Life lessons have been learned. However, Jesse and Celine’s connection remains intact.
You know how food tastes better when your eyes are closed? Before Sunset (2004) is like a ripe piece of delectable fruit deposited on your tongue on a warm summer day. Mouth wide open and your eyes wide shut. The intricacies of the sweet flesh and the slightly more tart skin made apparent when all focus is on the tongue is felt equally as intimately when we reunite with the romantic Jesse and the cynical Celine. Somehow even more intriguing, more passionate, more longing than the first time—a feat which seemed improbable—the viewer not only watches but experiences Paris, a lost love and life.
Good movies are made from the sum of integral parts: quality writing, convincing acting and stimulating visuals. Great movies inexplicably combine these aspects and more in a way that is indistinguishable. After having just finished the film, I honestly can’t tell you if Ethan Hawke is a gifted actor or if he really was on the verge of tears in the tender moments shared with Celine. I can’t tell you if Celine is a gorgeous woman or if she was framed by an artist with the beauty of Paris as the backdrop.
In the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), I thought that Jesse and Celine conversed about the topics that only a pensive and clearly philosophical writer develops during the lifetime leading up to the film. At the time, I questioned if a 23-year-old would really be able to communicate such developed thoughts off the cuff with a stranger—even one with which there is a nearly immediate and profound connection. Before Sunset reveals that the writer not only is capable of developing more than we were generously given in the first shot, but the differences in Jesse and Celine’s ages, maturity levels and world views artfully reflect the nine years they were apart. To say that the characters’ love for one another was rekindled, that their relationship took off right where they left it nine years prior would be cliché and minimize the intricacy of their meetings. Much more delicious and textured, we see how two people with a less than 48-hour history connect—first with the spontaneity and desire of young adults and then with the history and repercussions of thirty-somethings.
Where today’s sequels are comprised of risk management rather than artistic inspiration—the past five years has proven that no Superman, Batman or Spiderman will lose money — the Before series does something beyond entertain. Instead of simply giving its audience more of what they enjoyed so much in the first film, the depth of the second provokes the audience to believe in the first encounter even more heartily. In the first film the characters lived in the moment. In the second, the viewer learns that the experience fueled the next four years of Jesse’s writing career. In the first, the characters romantically share wine, walks and inane things. In the second, a smoking scene makes the viewer feel like characters are sharing a post-sex cigarette, when in fact it was only preceded by a conversation. In the first, the characters seem at times naïve. In the second the viewer appreciates the consequences of entitlement Jesse speaks of when talking about young people.
Overall, the essence of the film is captured in a nugget that Celine offers Jesse when she hugs him and says: “I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.”