You can make a strong argument that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise doesn’t require a sequel. A nimble 1995 romance starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as unacquainted travelers who spend a heady day and night in Vienna together before separating—with the beguiling possibility of a future rendezvous—during the film’s tantalizing conclusion, it was a sweet, euphoric gem that convincingly conveyed the transcendent power of conversation. Linklater, however, respectfully disagreed, and, as it turns out, wisely so. Before Sunset reunites Hawke’s Jesse, now a novelist who’s married with a young son, and Delpy’s Celine, an environmental activist mired in a passionless relationship, in Paris, where Jesse is finishing up a promotional tour of his new book This Time. The novel is a barely fictional account of his 24-hour reverie with Celine nine years earlier, and when Celine attends his appearance at a quaint Parisian bookstore shortly before he’s to catch a flight home, the two rekindle their relationship with an hour-long stroll around the silent, thinly populated city streets.
As with Linklater’s original, the beauty and grace of Before Sunset is its unparalleled ability to capture the idiosyncratic rhythm and cadence of everyday dialogue—the fitful starts, stops and interruptions of excited, nervous conversation, and the way in which two people engaged in discussion can get caught up in the intoxicating flow of ideas and emotions. Linklater’s unassuming camera predominately situates itself either directly in front of, or behind, the ambulatory couple, and this fluctuation between showing and hiding the characters’ faces—also found in scenes such as a third act car ride that begins with a shot of the driving automobile’s exterior while the duo’s voices can be heard chatting—conveys the primacy of the spoken word. Linklater’s ear is attuned to the commonplace sounds of life, so that when there’s a momentary respite from Jesse and Celine’s banter, the natural creaks of steps on a rickety old staircase or the monotonous splashes of water against a tourist boat’s hull help the director express the alluring vibrancy of the natural world surrounding these former lovers. And like two actors slipping comfortably into the roles of their lives—in part because they seem to be playing minor variations on their real-world selves—Hawke and Delpy bring a natural, optimistic slacker humanism (him) and a neurotic, wishful pessimism (her) to their restless strangers in the sunset.
Yet despite the familiarity of the film’s tempo, Before Sunset substitutes its predecessor’s revelatory tone for a somber wistfulness that subtly reflects the advanced age of its now mid-30s protagonists. Idealistic dreams of future love and bliss have given way to despondent fears that their one chance at happiness nine years earlier was an opportunity forever lost, only to be replaced by the unfulfilling dreariness of unhappy lives punctuated, at best, by minor satisfactions. That they delicately dance around contemporary Franco-American politics almost immediately after finding each other exemplifies the characters’ maturation from carefree, optimistic youths to realistic adults who more fully recognize and accept the many barriers (cultural, political, geographic, personal) that are conspiring to keep them apart. Linklater, however, is a dogged optimist and a devout believer in conversation as a holy unifying force, and thus as Jesse and Celine debate the nature of desire (is it a healing impulse or a corrupting one?), consumerism, and New York City, introspection and analysis ultimately become the vehicles by which this stunning film’s romantics learn, step by step, to progress from an unstable state of fragmentation to one approaching contented completeness.