When telling the continuation of a story, movies often find themselves in the awkward position of having to cover all over again past events for those that may not have seen the previous chapter, and simultaneously drive the actual story forward. The whole endeavor can be problematic: juggling too many storylines, subplots and characters tends to be the downfall of most sequels. And that’s why today I want dedicate this post to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset from 2004, the official sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise; a movie that stands on its and expands upon the first part of the Before trilogy (in 2013 Before Midnight would be released).
The story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young American and an equally young French student, whose chance encounter in Vienna turns into a magical night of friendship, confessions, poetry and love has by now become a cult classic and a testament to how the lines between ordinary life and art can be blurred through a camera lens.
Before Sunset continues this tradition of ordinary conversations replacing the actual plot of the movie, but does so in a completely different vain than its predecessor.
Let’s start at the beginning: whereas Before Sunrise was a chance encounter, pure and simple, Before Sunset tells the story of what happens when we believe in the power of that one chance encounter. This time around, nine years later, Jesse has just published his first novel, which is based on the magical night he spent with Celine in 90s Vienna, and is on his final day of his book tour of France. Celine, on the other hand, lives in Paris and for some reason is drawn to meeting Jesse after all these years. She heard of his book tour and is determined to confront the man who decided to turn their single night into a book.
Before parting ways, the young lovers had promised each other they would meet again a year later in Vienna right before Christmas, but alas, this promise did not work out. And here perhaps lies the first strength of Before Sunset; Richard Linklater as well as Hawke and Delpy (all three collaborated on the screenplay) are not afraid to confront the absurdity of promises we make and the even more absurd way we go about not addressing them properly.
Celine is convinced that Jesse had forgotten all about that promise. She couldn’t make it to Vienna the following year because of her grandma’s passing. At first, Jesse shakes his head and lies about not maintaining his end of the deal. But soon enough the truth comes out and it is revealed that Jesse did indeed travel back all the way to Vienna just to end up wandering the streets of the foreign city in the foreign country all alone. Haven’t we all been at some point Jesse in this situation? And haven’t we all been Celine as well? The way we make promises and romantically go about keeping them or how we tragically avoid their realization define our relationships and the way we approach life on a daily basis. Yet, rarely do we muster up the courage to confront these promises, and show that hey, maybe it was a romantic dream after all, but it was a dream I believed in and was ready to act upon. Before Sunset begins with this confrontation and inevitably begs the question, what could have been had both Jesse and Celine been in Vienna that following year?
The biggest draw to Before Sunset is seeing both characters age and mature. In 1995 our protagonists were on their way out of university, whereas in 2004 one of them is a father and husband, while the other works for an NGO and fights to make the world a better place. To realistically convey the way characters change over time is a challenge that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy approach head-on. Think about it; people change, but do they really? Their habits may change, their day-to-day activities, but their values and dreams rarely do. Jesse is still a hopeless romantic. He sees life as a canvas to paint his thoughts on. His observations are the observations of a man who constantly makes a million observations regarding each passing moment. He doesn’t question things, but merely observes and tries to squeeze the good parts as if he was squeezing an orange for breakfast. His ideas belong to a different realm, separated from actual reality. As a person he continues to operate based on these fantastical ideas and when life smacks him on the head, each time he is caught by surprise.
Celine, on the other hand, is the same matter-of-fact person we met the first time around, but with more fight and spirit. Compared to Jesse whose existence clings on a specific set of principles, Celine acts to survive and makes sense of whatever comes her way. She is not attached to ideas nor people. Her relationships are limited and short-lived. Her motto remains, “Being alone is better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely.” Her feelings of achievement stem from concrete work she does throughout the day. Success takes the form of small, separate actions that once put together create a big, vivid puzzle one can be proud of. Unlike Jesse, who would stand and admire this puzzle as if it were a museum piece, Celine moves on to build the next one, and the one after that. The real magic here, is that these two people can get together after years of not seeing each other, and mix their differences in worldview, value systems, teachings and so on, and fill in each other’s blank spots.
Before Sunset does not deal with young people’s anxiety anymore. Gone are the days of worrying over exams, over potential job offers and family expectations. We are now presented with fully formed adults who have made choices in life – choices they must learn to respect. Jesse is a father in a marriage that is falling apart. His struggle is that of a man who made the conservative decision and married a woman he never loved. The cruel irony of a romantic who hangs his head low and tries to conform to society’s standards. Meanwhile, Celine’s decision-making has led her to a way of life that alienates most of the people she meets. In her own, secret way she is also a hopeless romantic like Jesse, but does a better job of disguising it. Together they find solace in each other. For a few moments, as Jesse prepares to fly back to the States, the two are able to put their real lives on the side, just like they did in Vienna, and savor Paris for what it is – the history, the art, the ideology.
As they make their way down the Seine, Jesse points out Notre Dame and tells the story of a German officer who during World War II was entrusted with blowing up the Parisian cathedral. Ultimately, the legend narrates, the man could not do it. He could not destroy such beauty. Whether this story is true or not, our protagonists do not care. They are simply grateful to be alive in that moment, with the possibility of exchanging this story while contemplating the preserved beauty of Notre Dame.
Ethan Hawke accurately described Before Sunrise as a film about what might be, while Before Sunset as a film about what could or should be. After all, the idea for the films was based on a chance encounter Richard Linklater, the director, made in Philadelphia in the 80s with a girl named Amy he never saw again after that one night. In a way, Before Sunset fulfills our hope and reinforces our dreams. It is a movie that expands upon its predecessor by believing in the possibilities that life grants us from time to time. It refuses to let the magic of Before Sunrise stop, and argues that these characters deserve each other. They are better around each other. Together, they are stronger. Together, all the worrying is put on hold. All the fears become minuscule. And why the hell not? This is cinema. Anything’s possible.