How many sequels can you think of that are so good, they seem like a necessary part of the story, and not the greedy afterthoughts they are? That move the characters into new ground, that increase our understanding of the world while never losing sight of the initial magic? We can probably only agree on a few.
And this one.
Though Before Sunrise has been around for nine years, I had never seen it until a few months ago. You can click on that title if you want a more detailed synopsis, but basically, the whole story is: These two kids meet. Yes, a boy and a girl. An American boy and a French girl. They sit near each other on a train. They talk. They cannot stop talking. They stay up all night. Then they have to go back to their separate lives in separate countries.
It’s a remarkable film. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s a perfect film. Not because it’s a novel premise. But because it could easily be dull as dung, and every minute of it is engrossing. It’s filled with impressive long takes, but they aren’t showy. You aren’t watching the Steadicam operator round a corner, you’re lost in every tiny gesture. -Was that a lie? -Ooh, I wonder why she changed the subject. -Tell her, do it now! You see, there’s much more going on than the words themselves. It’s a heroic twin acting challenge, demanding as theater but with casual, natural intimacy. And a gorgeous backdrop – the city of Vienna, Austria.
Now, in order for me to talk about Sunset, I've got to ruin the ending of Sunrise for you. So, at this point, you should stop reading and go rent the first one.
When last we left our heroes, they promised to meet again in six months' time. As we slowly gather, that meeting never occurred. Jesse showed. Celine didn't. And since the two of them deliberately decided not to exchange phone numbers or mailing addresses -- How cliche, they cried! How unromantic! -- Jesse had no way of knowing the meeting was scheduled for the same date as Celine's grandmother's funeral.
Now it's nine years later. Jesse has arrived in Paris at the end of a whirlwind book tour. His novel, This Time, is a thinly veiled memoir about the night in the first film. As he awkwardly fields questions about the ambiguous ending, he notices Celine smiling quietly in a corner, and soon the second walk and talk begins. She's even had time to read the book, and criticize his version of events! Which, of course, is exactly why he wrote it. For her.
Because Jesse has to catch his flight back to America, there's much more catching up to be done in much less time. This film, unlike the first, has no convenient ellipses. The time elapsed in the story is identical to the running time. We see everything, and so, between the speed of the conversation and the geography of the city, every detail must be precisely planned by the filmmakers. It's the ultimate "ticking clock" scenario, only instead of racing to defuse a bomb, you're trying to make someone fall in love with you. Or trying to find out if they already do. Or maybe you don't even know what you're doing, but you know there's no one else you'd rather be doing it with.
It may seem a strange subject to make a film about, having a soulmate who lives impossibly far away, a situation that not many people could relate to. What I can say, as a member of the global internet generation and all, is that I actually know quite a few people who have found themselves in this predicament. They seem to either move or become emotional wrecks. And this is the baggage that Jesse and Celine have to work through. He has a son he adores with a woman he can't stand. She's involved with a photographer who's never around. Both of them are no closer to happiness than they were when they first met. Aging has given them no answers.
What I am trying to tell you is that there is real pain in this film. It is a private pain, an earned pain, a rare pain to be able to see on a screen. A pain that, if it does not know you yet, will know you someday. A pain that is worthy.
This film was written, for maximum authenticity, by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, who directed it. Besides the preceding film, he also made Waking Life and School of Rock and Dazed and Confused and so he is definitely the man. This is as romantic as smart movies get, and vice versa.
P.S. Keep an ear out for the part on the ferry where Jesse mentions the old woman. This is a reference to their appearance in the aforementioned Waking Life. Was it a shared dream? If so, Celine doesn't realize it, but neither does she ask him what the hell he's talking about.