Movies That Matter: Before Sunset

delves into one of the films closest to his heart

Cinema is an art form worthy of critical insight, close analysis and intense study. It is also, however, a form of entertainment, and the kind of art that touches people deeply, forming unbreakable connections of adoration between the viewer and the film. It is easy to sneer at someone’s favourite film, but to wax lyrically and pour out all your reasons for why a film means something to you is a joyous activity. That is why at Nouse we let our writers write to their heart’s content about the “Movies That Matter”, whether they be critical masterpieces, childhood favourites or the film that made them fall in love with the cinema.

Image: Warner Independent Pictures

N.B. May contain spoilers for the Before… trilogy.

Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy is something that is very close to my heart. This is for the simple reason that all three of his exquisite explorations of love and ageing are films that truly made me feel. This is not something that is easily achieved by a film. I have seen a great many brilliantly crafted films in my rather short life, but not all of these are capable of moving me in a deep way. For a film to be truly important to me, it must create an almost indefinable excitement. In the case of the Before… trilogy that excitement is love. As an extended narrative it depicts true love, whilst bringing just the right amount of cynicism to it to be both uplifting and crushing. Yet beyond being the most palpable portrayal of romance I have ever seen on screen, the films made me fall in love too. I fell in love with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine; I fell in love with the idea of them. The ardent belief in love and romantic ideals is so wonderfully portrayed that watching Jesse and Celine’s story unfold is something I will never forget.

Image: Warner Independent Pictures

All three parts of Linklater’s series, filmed 9 years apart each time, are magnificent in their own way, but my personal favourite is the middle film, Before Sunset. I have no hesitation in admitting it is not the greatest film of the three; that honour goes to 2013’s Before Midnight, a film that is complex and deeply felt in a way I have almost never seen before. Yet it lacks the unbridled joy that touches so much of its predecessors. Before Sunrise is 90 minutes of gushing romance, encapsulating the one-night whirlwind that brings Jesse and Celine together. Yet somehow Before Sunset tops even this for romance, ironically due to its increased level of cynicism. Like its characters, Before Sunset is older and wiser than before, with real-life pains and complications making the bond between Jesse and Celine more real and more urgent than before.

From the opening moments of this second instalment, we are reminded of that magical night in Vienna nine years ago. First we are presented with shots of the locations that played host to Jesse and Celine’s fleeting love affair. Then we see Jesse – honest, charming and unashamedly creative and ambitious as ever. Then we see Celine. Then Jesse sees Celine. Then…unbridled cinematic bliss.

As soon as they lay eyes on each other, a thrill of excitement can be felt. “Thrill” is an admittedly odd word to use about a film that is essentially just one long series of conversations. But what conversations. Even at a slight 77 minutes, there is still so much here. In their exchanges, we are reminded of what we love about them – their articulacy, their intelligence and their infectious enthusiasm for one another, to name but three. I could write reams there’s so much to pick up on in their conversations. Consider when they refer to not exchanging phone numbers as being “stupid”. It’s amusing how much their attitude has changed since their twenties, but does this passing allusion also make the young and the old alike reflect on their attitude towards life, love and ageing? Does the throwaway attitude of their twenties reflect how Jesse and Celine probably never thought that a chance encounter on a train could lead to years of unrealised love and potentially the most meaningful relationship of their lives? Does the disdain for their younger selves reveal something about how Hawke and Delpy (now sharing screenwriting credits with Linklater) have progressed in the intervening years? I could go on.

Image: Warner Independent Pictures

Yet, their conversations are never overly wordy or dense. There’s no need to search for meaning. It’s just two people having a conversation. That is one of the greatest strengths of the Before… trilogy, that it is just so enthralling to watch these two people talk. This is because their words can hold so much power, excitement and love in them. The thing I have most admired about Richard Linklater is that he understands that conversation can be the greatest gift of life, and he manages to make listening to Jesse and Celine just as joyful. Jesse himself perhaps puts it best when he says that one of the most exciting things in life “is to really meet somebody”.

None of this could possibly be anywhere near as wonderful as it is without Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. The entire film rests on them and they are regularly spot-on. Delpy’s release of bottled-up emotion in the back of a taxi is perhaps the most attention-grabbing example of their power, but Hawke is consistently excellent. The opening exchanges show him at his best, conveying awkwardness and embarrassment whilst trying to hide the pain and ferocity of his love. With Sunset set in Celine’s native Paris, there is a shift in the power dynamics that is amplified by Hawke’s performance. Has Jesse been the more enamoured of the two all along? We get the impression she could do anything and he would follow her, what she will do is what’s important however.

Through all the wit and charm and the wider arc of Jesse and Celine’s relationship, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy touch on important issues both current and everlasting. Or maybe “current” was being a bit optimistic; 14 years on and the destruction of the environment and gun-crazed America are just as frightening. Less worrying but no less engaging are the meditations on fate and the culture clash between France and the US. Then, of course, there’s time.

Image: Warner Independent Pictures

As anyone who’s seen Boyhood will attest, the passing of time is a favourite theme of Linklater’s. Even before the middle-aged aches and pains of Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine were obsessed with age and time. It’s no accident that both Jesse’s 24-hour TV idea in Sunrise and the plot of his next novel in Sunset both play on the notion of time, or that he quotes Thomas Wolfe: “we are the sum of all the moments of our lives”. Meanwhile, Celine recounting a dream of hers in a café is one of the film’s best moments, at once funny and despondent: “I was having this awful nightmare that I was 32. And then I woke up, and I was 23. So relieved. And then I woke up for real…and I was 32.”

With Jesse’s flight back to the US looming, the film unfolding in real time perfectly gives a sense of the minutes slipping through their and our fingers. Outside Celine’s apartment they have an embrace reminiscent of the one at the station at the end of Sunrise. It is beautifully written and acted and filled with a palpable sense of sadness and a desperation not to part. But this time they hang on a bit longer and instead of separation we are left with hope and optimism, as the tension mounts and culminates in those gorgeous, outrageously romantic final lines:

“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
“I know.”

Hawke’s face says it all. He wears a wry smile, that betrays how utterly enamoured he is, but with the slight hesitance of a man who is smart enough to know the pain that will come with falling in love. But for those delightful closing seconds, we are left with the same optimism and belief as Jesse. He is in love and I, for one, am in love too.

That is why Before Sunset, to me, is a movie that really matters.

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