Directed by Richard Linklater
Before Sunset has a little bit of Casablanca in it, though I maybe I only say that because I just watched the Humphrey Bogart film recently too. This movie is a sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, a story that introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse and Celine to each other. They tell each other stories and express their views on the world, their thoughts, their fears, their dreams. It’s like a thesis statement about what life feels like and could be when you’re that age. Before Sunset is more of a concluding statement, as Jesse and Celine have had enough life experience to consider the younger versions of themselves to be fools.
Still, they push through various disappointments in the 9 years since and try to recognize in each other the person they were that summer night in Vienna. As their conversation goes on, this time during an afternoon in Paris, they begin to discuss the events of Before Sunrise with some apprehension, slowly acknowledging that their dream-like night together ruined their concept of love.
Jesse is in an unhappy marriage, and Celine, in a relationship of her own, considers her love life to be a complete failure. She gets mad at Jesse in one moment, asking why he had to stir this all up again. Later she sings him a song that suggests Jesse’s arrival didn’t stir it up, that night has been simmering in her mind for a while.
The plot of Before Sunset is simple, and it exists only to put Jesse and Celine in the same place, able to discuss how they’ve changed since the last film and making it clear that this is the first time they’ve seen each other since the first time they met. Jesse is a writer, making the final stop of a book tour across Europe. He answers questions about his story, written about the night of Before Sunrise, and then he meets Celine again, as she hides in the back of the store, waiting to meet him.
The first ten or so minutes are like a prologue to the film, and based on interviews with director Richard Linklater, the views expressed by Jesse are basically the same ones held by Linklater. The story is that Before Sunrise was inspired by a night Linklater spent with a woman in Philadelphia, sometime between 1991 and 1993.
Linklater turning his own personal experience into Before Sunrise is very much akin to Jesse doing the same with his novel. One reporter asks Jesse the question, do the young couple follow up on their promise to meet in the same spot, at the same train station 6 months later? The question is meant to catch us up on the events of the first film, in which Jesse and Celine left each other with that same promise. Jesse’s response to the question is the exact same one Linklater has offered in interviews following that first film: your answer depends on your outlook, are you a cynic or a romantic?
This scene essentially allows Linklater to address questions and comments about his first film. Then, when Celine pops in, she too addresses Jesse’s book, coming from the perspective of someone knowing a character is based entirely on them. She tells Jesse that perhaps he idealized that night and that maybe he didn’t accurately capture her as a character or as a person. Jesse’s response is that the book is fiction, no matter how true to their life it is.
Celine’s reaction to his novel feels meta, and it is I suppose, but it feels like a possible commentary on the roles of women in film in general. I recently saw Baby Driver, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that film, it does have a problem with its female characters, each of whom have a single purpose directed towards the male protagonist. One is Baby’s mom, a woman we only meet through flashbacks. She died when he was a kid, and her death is a motivating force for his character, something he returns to throughout the narrative. The other is Debora, Baby’s love interest, and she’s the, well she’s the love interest. Her role is mainly to be the object of Baby’s affection, something he is worried about losing when the villain closes in. The other character is Darling, herself a bank robber, yet the most important thing she does is die, and her death motivates the ‘final boss’ villain, Buddy, to pursue our hero with reckless abandon.
So each female character serves the protagonist, who happens to be a man. Again, not every movie has a responsibility to make every character a substantial one, as oftentimes only the main character and one or two more will have much substance.
But most films follow familiar conventions, and Celine’s opinion towards Jesse’s novel feels like a message Julie Delpy herself might have on movies in general. The characters in this trilogy (so far) were developed by Linklater working together with Hawke and Delpy. The characters, then, are composites of their own experiences and perspectives, both of the world now and of the way they see the world differently than they once did.
In Before Sunset, our two main characters talk almost exclusively to each other. In the first film, they had a handful of interactions with side characters, almost as if to shine a light on one aspect of their respective personalities. Here, however, we already know the characters, and so much of what they say is connected to what we already know or suspect about them and what they suspect about each other.
We start, for example, with Celine asking Jesse if he ever did go back to that train platform. She didn’t, we learn, because her grandmother died not long before the December date they agreed upon. When Jesse lies and says he didn’t show up, she quickly sees through it and then expresses her condolences for not showing up herself. The moment serves several purposes. We learn, first, that Jesse did show up, and his story helps reinforce the idea that he’s a romantic. Then, his lie demonstrates an attempt to make Celine feel okay about herself not showing up, and this becomes a slight theme of their conversation throughout the film. Jesse is very delicate with Celine, not that he needs to be or that she asks him to be. Maybe delicate isn’t the right word so much as apprehensive. They’re trying to feel each other out like they’re meeting for the first time.
Celine, we will later learn, mistakenly believes that Jesse has the perfect life. He’s married with a kid, and he’s a best-selling author. Her insecurities slowly seep out through their conversation until she finally gets heated, telling him how angry she is that he wrote the book and stirred up emotions she had long suppressed. Her point, essentially, is that she was doing okay in her life, but the book reminded her of what they had that one night and what they could have. It feels to me, that from the beginning, Jesse is afraid to ask certain questions towards Celine. This is partially because his book provides enough fodder for conversation that they can talk about that before moving onto topics aside from that night.
And maybe Jesse is afraid to ask is she’s seeing anyone because he doesn’t want to know if she is. He even seems reluctant to offer up the news that he is married because…
Well frankly, this story is about two adults who think they’re too old to be experiencing the puppy love of a teenager again. But they feel it with each other. They spend much of the beginning of the film talking about that one night together, almost as if they were fools both for letting it happen and for letting it end. Then they finally start to discuss their more recent lives, and most of what they focus on are their failures. This is despite the fact that both are in somewhat committed relationships and involved in mostly fulfilling careers.
The last section of the film feels much like Before Sunrise as they seem to be learning how to communicate again. This has the longest period of silence between them, when they march up the stairs to Celine’s apartment. Suddenly they’re kids again, and they don’t fight it. This scene is very much like the one in Before Sunrise in which they exchange flirtatious glances in a record store. Everything is left unsaid because nothing needs to be said.
When they reach her apartment, they listen to music, and Celine performs a song for Jesse, clearly about their night together. It’s a sort of payoff, showing that she has thought about their meeting enough to create art inspired by it just as he has. As much as they want to pretend their meeting was a passing thing, because maybe it’s silly to get too caught up in a moment, they’re both haunted and inspired by that moment.
When Jesse acknowledges, finally, that he’s going to miss his flight, it’s a more concrete ending than the one from Before Sunrise, suggesting that they’ve achieved the perfect balance of adult confidence and teenage puppy love. They’re not going to screw it up this time.
Note: I wrote this late at night while the Nyquil was kicking in. If my writing feels a little scattered, perhaps that’s why.