Before Sunset: second brief encounter is talky but outstanding romantic drama

before-sunsetBefore Sunset is a rarity for a modern movie: the all-talk, no-action comedy-drama. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie this wordy since…well, since its predecessor, Before Sunrise.

It’s nine years later, and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have gone their separate ways. She’s now married to a photojournalist and lives in Paris; he’s a best-selling author now on a book tour. Celine appears at his signing in Paris, and the two decide to walk for a bit around the city, talking. And talking and talking and talking.

Ordinarily, I’d be bored at this point. There’s only so much talking I can take in a movie before my attention really starts to wander. Something should happen! And yet here… nothing ever does. And even though nothing ever really happens, there’s a subtle shift in how Celine and Jesse view each other and themselves, during their lengthy conversation. Did what happened in Vienna nine years ago affect either of them, or was it just a blip in the radar? Celine’s appearance suggests the former for her; it seems that Jesse’s book, which is slightly autobiographical, has brought back a flood of memories. Naturally, Jesse also still has very strong feelings for Celine and wishes their brief encounter had turned out differently.

The movie is steeped in romance. I’m not one for romantic comedies, let alone romantic dramadies, but the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke is so strong that it’s impossible not to get completely immersed in their situations. In fact, the characters are so well fleshed out (no pun intended – there’s no nudity) that you find yourself empathizing with either point of view, no matter your gender. You can see that Jesse, at the start, is still very hurt that Celine did not show for their promised follow-up meeting in Vienna, and he has worked through those hurt feelings by writing this purportedly fictional book.

Meanwhile, Celine has moved on with her life as well, but apparently not without pining for Jesse. (Turns out she had a good reason for not making it to their rendezvous.) Throughout the course of their conversation, the connection between Jesse and Celine is palpably thick. Unlike more-cliched pairings, where one might well shout at the screen for the protagonists to get on with it, already, Before Sunset’s Delpy and Hawke show that it’s the journey, not the destination, that bears the sweetest fruit.

The ending is both satisying and not cliched. This isn’t easy to accomplish; often, when a movie manages to make the audience care about the lead characters, the ending is tacked on, almost forced. Not so here.

Before Sunset is as moving and delightful as its predecessor, and it’s easy to see why Delpy and Hawke decided to revisit their characters. Director Richard Linklater expertly walks the line between maudlin and sentimental; the characterizations are so vividly authentic that one almost – almost – looks forward to another sequel.

Before Sunset: ***1/2

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