Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise was one of those miracles that occur every once in a while just to remind us what movies are capable of. Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as a pair of footloose and fancy-free college kids who meet on a train and then spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna while talking, talking, talking, the movie consisted of all the moments usually left out of movies - the casual remarks, the casual glances, the casual (off-screen) sex, all of it adding up to something that didn't seem so casual after all. For, like Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses (the movie was set on June 16, Bloom's Day), these friendly strangers managed to squeeze a whole lifetime into a few short hours. And their conversation, at once deep and shallow, was about as close as the movies have ever gotten to capturing the romantic dance of young English majors in love. Even the dips in profundity seemed profound, profoundly real.
Can lightning strike in the same place twice? Someone thought so, because here's Before Sunset, which picks up where Before Sunrise left off. Actually, it picks up nine years later, Hawke's Jesse and Delpy's Celine not having seen each other in the interim. At the end of Before Sunrise, they'd parted with a promise to rendezvous in Vienna six months later, but we learn in Before Sunset that that didn't work out. (The details I'll leave for you to discover.) Today, Jesse's a successful author whose recent novel is about a certain night and a certain French girl. And who should appear at his Paris book-signing but la jeune fille herself - not as young as she once was, but neither is Jesse. With only an hour or so before he has to head to the airport, the two of them go for a walk, stop at a coffee shop, take a boat ride down the Seine and talk, talk, talk, trying to squeeze another lifetime into the short time they have together.
As for their own lifetimes, they're now in the middle of them rather than at the beginning. And what strikes us first about these thirtysomethings is that they've lost the ripeness of youth. Both are thinner in the face, like grapes drying into raisins. And Jesse has a worry line that splits his forehead in two. After some early-round feinting and jabbing, they start to trust each other again, sharing their life stories. And although they've both accomplished things, a cloud of regret hangs over their accounts. Jesse's stuck in a dead-end marriage, his son the only real consolation. And Celine has fallen in and out of love enough times to make her give up on the whole idea. But maybe things could have gone (or will go?) differently for them. If Before Sunrise was the modern equivalent of Brief Encounter, a dream deferred, Before Sunset is the modern equivalent of An Affair to Remember, a dream recaptured. But can these lovebirds hold on?
Strangely enough, the answer to that question doesn't seem terribly important. For it's the movie's modernity, the sense that it's happening right now, while we're watching, that makes it so memorable. Linklater sets it in real time, turning Jesse and Celine's hour together into a race against the clock, and we feel less like we're watching a movie than like we're eavesdropping on an alluringly personal conversation. And the conversationalists, though still possessed of Hollywood star power, nevertheless seem utterly familiar to those of us who read too much, discuss what we read too much and basically turn everything that ever happens to us over in our minds so many times that we can't remember where we started. To its eternal credit, Before Sunset is a talking picture for those who appreciate talk - talk as play, talk as foreplay, talk as a perhaps doomed attempt to make meaningful contact with another human being.