Saturday 1 January 2022

Movie Review: Before Sunset (2004)

A romantic drama and sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise, Before Sunset picks up the story nine years later, with the lovers moving into their thirties.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is in Paris completing a promotional tour for his new book, a work of fiction inspired by the one magical night he spent in Vienna with Céline (Julie Delpy) nine years earlier. Céline shows up at the end of Jesse's final media engagement, and they spend time walking and talking to get reacquainted ahead of his flight back to the United States.

After discussing why they failed to reunite as planned six months after their first meeting, they fill each other in on their lives since that night. Céline graduated, spent time in India and New York, and is now working for an environmental advocacy organization. She is disappointed in men and frustrated by a misfiring love life. Jesse is living in New York and stuck in a loveless marriage, but is deeply fond of his four-year-old son Hank. As the time for his flight draws nearer, they realize a strong spark of attraction still exists between them.

A bit older and a bit wiser, Before Sunset finds Jesse and Céline reuniting as they bump-up against the adult world. Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the script with director Richard Linklater, and the economical 80 minutes catch up on nine years in a single afternoon of conversations. The Parisian setting is judiciously deployed to provide a romantic backdrop without devolving into cliches.

The examination of an adult relationship through honest dialogue generates potent drama.  The magic of the first meeting, true young love, and the serendipitous discovery of a soulmate cannot of course be replicated. The sequel is therefore less mystical and more grounded in the sharper edges of life, the airiness of idealism and freedom of drift giving way to dissatisfaction and more caustic self-awareness, pangs of guilt providing an undercurrent. 

It's refreshing to see Jesse and Céline mature into real, flawed people, her neurotic brand of feminism and his nonchalant evasiveness hardening their personalities. Jesse never forgot Céline and indeed wrote the book to try and find her. His marriage is already on the rocks, but his writing career is taking off and he is discovering the joys of fatherhood. Céline is also finding her way in her chosen field of environmental protection with a music-writing side-hobby, but she is harbouring toxic frustrations with her inability to find a worthwhile partner in life, and unloads her anger with venom.

Linklater again uses long uninterrupted takes to naturalistically dive into two people's psyches, Hawk and Delpy tapping into their effortless rapport and deep comfort with their characters. As their day together draws to an end, undeniable attraction develops and major decisions beckon. This time as adults, whimsical surrenders carry more serious consequences.

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