In some film circles, the summer of 2004 has been deemed the summer of the sequel, with an unusually high number of movies being released having been the second or third film in a certain series. In the past two months alone we've had Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the third Potter film), not to mention The Chronicles of Riddick (sequel to Pitch Black). In fact, it seems like just about every other movie I've seen has been some sort of sequel. Has Hollywood run out of original ideas? I'd say the answer is yes, but the driving force behind this plethora of movie sequels is that they are safe and already proven bets to many piles of money for their parent companies. However, amidst all the chaos of Shrek's journey to Far, Far Away and Spider-Man defeating Doc Ock, there is one sequel that falls in a decidedly different category and that film is Before Sunset from director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock). A sequel in the sense that it follows the 1994 cult classic Before Sunrise, this is a film made purely for artistic, not monetary reasons and is a character-driven, not special effects picture. The first film was not a huge money maker and therefore the fact that a second exists is a real testament to the fact that the film was assembled as a labor of love and not the need to make a quick buck.
When we last left Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), they were standing on a platform in Vienna after spending a magical day and night together. The two, who had met on a train ride through the European countryside, had clicked and as they were saying their good-byes they had planned to reunite six months later. It's been nine years since that night, and Jesse is now a successful author on the European leg of his book tour promoting a book that chronicles the events of that whirlwind romance some years ago. On his final stop in Paris and just two hours before his plane takes him back to the United States, he encounters Celine, who tells him that she's read the book and is a fan, and saw his name on the calendar and knew that they had to reconnect. With time not on their side, the two begin to spend his last minutes in Paris walking through the streets and talking about life, love, the pursuit of happiness, and of course the time the two spent together in Vienna. Almost immediately, the feelings begin to rush back to them and Jesse realizes that what they had just might have been love.
Before Sunset is a unique and interesting film in that it's entirely character driven. Apart from the brief plot elements that brings the two of them together, this movie is made up entirely of dialogue and discussion between Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine. It also occurs in real time, as the moments of the clock tick down towards Jesse's exit and the splitting apart of these two very interesting people. We as the audience feel like innocent bystanders as we eavesdrop on one magnificent and thought-provoking discussion between two people who are simply trying to catch up. At the beginning they are both nervous and the conversation is full of awkward pauses and strange silences, but as the two of them begin to become comfortable with one another again, the words seem to flow with relative ease and the physical space between the two of them shrinks. During their talk we learn that time has changed them both. Jesse is now married and living in New York, Celine has had her fair share of romantic problems, and it is clear that they both still harbour deep feelings for one another. Jesse admits to thinking of her on his wedding day and Celine has penned a song about their one night stand.
Richard Linklater has been called a master of independent cinema and the written word, and with the help and creative input of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, has created one of his best screenplays yet for Before Sunset. Given the highly character- and dialogue-driven elements of the film and the fact that the two characters are talking almost non-stop for the majority of the picture, this film could sink or swim on the dialogue. Jessie and Celine discuss everything from politics, to finding the right job, to memory and how different people remember things in different ways, to sex, and everything in between. Their discussions are ultra realistic and never seem forced or scripted. The screenplay feels more as if we are witnessing an ever-changing conversation between two people than something that has been written out word for word, memorized, and recited back into a camera. It really feels as if these subjects and thoughts are just popping into the characters' heads and they are discussing ideas in a thought-provoking and real manner.
Another area where the entire film could have come apart is the casting. Luckily Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have this tremendous natural chemistry between them that really allows the viewer to forget they are watching a scripted piece of fiction. Hawke is an actor that I'm not really all that fond of, though he hasn't irritated me to the point of not reviewing one of his films (a fellow critic refused to see this film due to his appearance). He has yet to really contribute a performance that has made me stand up and take note. Here he gives that performance. Hawke is solid and likeable but yet flawed as Jesse, a role he no doubt has given considerable thought to in the 9 years since the events of Sunrise. Jesse is still the same person he was in that film, but has aged both in years and wisdom, and has grown cynical towards love and the process of falling in love. Julie Delpy is an actress I'm not overly familiar with, but she captured my heart with her natural beauty, which just resonates on the screen. Celine is still optimistic towards love, though her idealism of the concept might be wavering ever so slightly. Delpy and Hawke's chemistry is electric and the way they interact never seems fake. I thought I was watching two real people and not a movie.
Before Sunset is a polarizing piece of cinema and is certaintly not for everyone. For as much as I loved every second of the film and didn't want to leave the theater for even a mere moment, it's an experience that is certainly not something all will enjoy. Those who need action and a story are barking up the wrong tree here. Nothing happens in Before Sunset, but yet everything happens for the characters of Jesse and Celine. The film's ending is brilliant, yet frustrating as it ends abruptly and without warning. Knowledge of the film's running time and a glance at my watch put the ending within 5 minutes of a key sequence and turning point in these people's lives. Had I not been jarred twice by audio dropouts on the print that was screened, then I wouldn't have even thought to look at my watch towards the end of the movie. For me, the movie just flows and the discussion that these two people have is so engaging and fresh that it's almost as if 90 minutes is only 90 seconds. I'll be totally honest with you, I almost skipped this particular screening as it was the first in what was going to be a 3-screening day, but I took a chance given the reputation of the previous film and I was pleasantly surprised. So much so that after the day was all said and done, the one movie I couldn't help thinking about more than the others was not Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, but Linklater's Before Sunset.
At the end of the day, like the end of Jesse and Celine's conversation, Before Sunset is a beautifully-acted film for fans of characters and cinema. If you're looking for a non-stop action blockbuster or for something with numerous plot points, you are looking in the wrong place. A character-driven piece made by a team of consummate professionals â€" Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy â€" have brought back Jesse and Celine in what is surely a rare type of summer picture and one of the year's best so far. I only wish the film was longer and we had more time to spend with these amazing characters that really transcend the definition of movie characters. I liked every aspect of this movie and didn't want it to end. I can't wait to experience it again and will as soon as it's released for general audiences in my hometown of Vancouver.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.