Cult Classics: Before Sunset

before sunset indexBefore Sunrise was Richard Linklater’s third film and what many considered to be his first truly mature effort, which saw strangers Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) meet each other by chance and then spend a night wandering around Vienna discussing life, love, and various beliefs all against the beautiful backdrop of the city at night. A Brief Encounter for the nineties, this genuinely touching and sweet film ended with Jessie and Celine promising to meet back in Vienna six months later.

Many years on and with Before Sunset we find they’re reunion never occurred, and Jessie is now giving a talk in a Parisian book shop as he’s spent the last four years writing a book about the night he spent with Celine. To Jessie’s surprise, she suddenly arrives at the bookshop, and they’re reunited for the first time, and we soon learn that while Jessie was in Vienna as planned Celine never made it due to her Grandmother dying a couple of days beforehand as old people are annoying like that. Fortunately Jessie doesn’t hold a grudge and they then spend the rest of the film walking and talking through Paris, catching up and lamenting the past.

Like Before Sunrise and Waking Life this finds Linklater in an unashamedly intellectual mood, examining characters lives and beliefs once more, and questioning whether the decisions they made were the right ones. Jessie’s in a loveless marriage but unable to imagine a life without his son, while Celine suffers from not being able to commit, and an inability to allow herself to fall in love again, as it’s gradually revealed that both were scarred by the night they spent together and that they never stayed together then.

Paris by day doesn’t make for such a beautiful backdrop as Vienna by night did, and the joy of seeing two characters fall in love for the first time within such a short space of time is missing from this sequel, but it’s still an involving, intelligent and genuinely emotional film. And though you might not always agree with the sentiments the characters express, it can’t be denied that they’re incredibly rounded and believable characters. Hawk does come across at first seems slightly annoying as he hides his feelings from Celine, but despite being tinged by melancholy, Celine’s as sweet as ever, and not for a second will you question the feelings the two characters have for each other.

To pull off a film which is basically  two people talking to each other is an incredible achievement, and now Linklater’s managed it twice which is damn impressive, though more innovative visuals and a slightly longer running time might have made it all the more enjoyable. Bittersweet, though more sweet than bitter, another ambiguous ending may frustrate, but as Jessie says when discussing his book, it depends on whether you’re a romantic or a cynic to how you feel that their lives will turn out, so for me at least it was a very happy ending.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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