Before Sunset
Reviewed in August 2004
Top Ten List: #10 of 2004 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #10 of 2004 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Richard Linklater. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vernon Dobtcheff, Diabolo. Screenplay: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and Richard Linklater (based on a story by Richard Linklater and Kim Krazin).

Photo © 2004 Warner Independent Pictures
I don't know, honey, what do you think about this idea of there being sequels to arthouse movies? I mean I don't suppose there's anything wrong with it. Actually, I don't even know why I'm even worrying about it, because I thought Before Sunset was great. It's just, who would have thought? You don't expect to see a small, two-hander drama that barely made a blip at the box-office nine years ago to turn into some kind of franchise.

Well, I don't know if "franchise" is quite the right word. I doubt the folks at Warner Independent are expecting to make a bankroll on this thing. Plus, how much further can it go? After the Sunset is already taken. So is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. So is Sunrise, Sunset, and these characters aren't Jewish.

How about Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life, Again?

Now you're just being silly. Anyway hmmm. You know, I'm not sure I liked it as much as you did.

What do you mean? You laughed all the way through it! Well, not all the way, I mean—it's not an out and out comedy, but the funny parts were funny, the emotional parts were emotional... I just thought the whole thing was exquisite.

...and I love that you think that, and I love you for using words like "exquisite." But I don't know, you know I mean, remember when we saw Before Sunrise, what was it, eight years ago or something? On the couch, in that apartment you used to have?

You're never going to let me forget that couch. But yes, I remember Before Sunrise as this perfect little movie that we almost hadn't rented, because wasn't there something else we went to the store to look for, and we couldn't find it...

Well, yeah, you were going through your whole Kieslowski thing, remember? We were looking for White, which was checked out by somebody else going through a Kieslowski thing...

Sweetie, you do not go through a "thing" with one of the profound spiritual artists of the cinema. But I know we've agreed to disagree on that.

I mean, blue + white + red, blah blah, fraternity and liberty and all. I'm totally over it. Well, I always was over it. But you're right. Anyway yes. Assuming that Julie Delpy herself would be enough to tide you over, we took a risk on this little Eurail Pass dramedy-romance that I was sure was going to be about adolescent self-involvement, and turning European cities into a kind of faux-intellectual theme park for swelled-head little Princeton grads having their first "romantic" epiphany, vaguely to the effect that, Why yes, other people actually exist elsewhere in the world.

You're flashing back to Lost in Translation, aren't you?

No, because that was about Asian cities being America's faux-intellectual theme parks. Keep up!

Well, I'm waiting for you to get to the part where we both loved Before Sunrise, and where you explain how you could possibly not love Before Sunset just as much, if not more. God, that movie was perfect!

Okay, well yeah, that's the thing. Before Sunrise, I mean, you were absolutely right. Totally good renter's instinct. Basically one of your best attributes.

Way better than the Kieslowski-thing part of me.

Way better. So, this little romance just comes out of nowhere, with a really surprising, really smart pairing of these two actors who are both out to prove themselves, but the movie was just so calm, and so humane. I mean, it wasn't like Before Sunrise didn't know that Jesse was a little bit of a cock-of-the-walk, with his self-conscious little coffeeshop mannerisms and stuff, and Céline was... I mean, whatever, these were flawed, likeable, engaging people who were able to sustain an entire movie almost on their own shoulders.


And yet, Vienna was just really well filmed and so smartly incorporated into that film. Not that I've ever been there. So I guess, what am I even talking about. I mean, I'm digging at "faux-intellectualism," and I'm spouting off about cities I've never even visited. Whatever, don't listen to me. Before Sunset was great.

Well, I don't think you have to have been to Vienna to think that, from an aesthetic point of view, Linklater drew on the visual character of the city to infuse the movie with a kind of tonal environment that was a little more grounded and a little older than the main characters. I remember how much we liked that part of it, that the city played such a strong role, with all those little picaresque encounters with passersby and bartenders and stuff that really grounded Jesse and Céline in a specific place, however fleetingly. I'm sure we wouldn't remember the movie as fondly without all the background photography.

Well, yeah, and without that sort of mature spirit of the movie that incorporated all those Viennese without turning them into EuroDisney characters, or making Jesse and Céline laugh at them the way Sofia Coppola's characters did at the Japanese. I mean, remember that street poet?

The guy who writes the poem based on the word they gave him, down by the river?

Right! I mean, he was almost set up to be this precious or mocking little caricature of the river-rat artist, but then the poem he comes up with is actually pretty good, ensuring that Before Sunrise could be funny and warm and sort of ga-ga in love with the idea of Europe without cheapening anybody or using the characters as foils.

Yeah, that's true. I have to admit, I'd really underestimated Richard Linklater, even though I loved Dazed and Confused so much, and now I feel like I've done it again, because I really wasn't prepared for how elegant Before Sunset would be, even though he's never made a movie that didn't strike me as perfectly structured and styled for the demands of the script. Which is amazing, because Tape, Waking Life, School of Rock, this is a pretty diverse portfolio of work. The only real through-thread that connects the movies is an economy of expression and a pretty non-judgmental attitude toward the characters.

Even the guys in Tape, who were pretty enormous assholes.

Right. So now. I mean: the movie we just saw. I don't see how—

Well, let me clarify what I said, I mean, of course I liked it a lot, I almost loved it. I mean, I often felt like I loved it, but I'm not sure I really did, or I'm not really sure why. It's, like, a hard movie to argue with. I mean sun, Paris, familiar characters, boating down the Seine, literate dialogue, pert little barbs against American braggadocio. Céline has become this radiant, emancipated activist who can playfully swing her hips around her apartment while bringing pencils to the starved children of Mexico. I mean...

Well, now hold on. The pencil story is just to make a point, and we can see that she's reporting it partially because she cares about her work, but she's also flirting with Jesse by telling him this stuff, right? I mean, okay, she is this kind of walking perfection in certain ways—

...especially when the cinematographer has got this gorgeous, Parisian natural light just filtering through her long, blonde hair, which she gets this whole separate shot to sort of tumble down her shoulders in the café...

Fine, fine, fine, but this is still a character. I mean, when she turns into a mess, she really turns into a mess, all the tearing and crying in the car, and threatening to hop out of the cab while it's still moving, and the accusations and flights of crazy emotion. I mean, these people are attractive, but nine years of life has only exacerbated their neuroses. This isn't like Garden State, where we keep hearing that the Natalie Portman and Zach Braff characters are headcases, but the film makes sure that she is permanently adorable, and that everyone else around them is a stooge.

Well, you're right. I mean, you're not setting the bar real high with Garden State. But yes, that's true. I loved that Céline at least has her own peculiar sense of humor, like when she tells Jesse she left her kids suffocating in a car six months ago.

Totally great. And when was the last time a film character made goo-goo noises at her cat and you didn't want to just throw up? I mean, maybe we're total cynics, but there are certain forms of sentiment I thought couldn't possibly be rescued.

Except, of course, in a film that Kieslowski has color-coded for you.

Okay, sorry.

What I was saying is that, yes, because of our history with these characters, sure we're already rooting for them. And yes, it's a beautiful Parisian afternoon, and Julie Delpy is a vision, and the banter actually is witty, and there's Nina Simone and fluffy cats, but—these are not perfectly happy, perfectly idealized people, are they? And even more amazingly, when we start learning that these two delicious would-be lovers aren't perfectly "happy," we actually feel sorry for them and relate to what they're saying, instead of thinking, "Oh God, here's another script by a pair of actors who are telling us how hard their lives are."

You know, that's true, too. I don't know how I got into this position of criticizing the movie. I mean, it is a real feat of loose, frisky characterization that still feels careful and particular, and you're right that it manages to stay on the right side of the Bathos line. He is a great director, and I wonder if he'll get any credit for it because the look of this film is so simple. But those serene tracking shots through the streets, they must have been really carefully choreographed, and I admit I couldn't help noticing them, but I still don't think they were showy.

No, I didn't think so, either. And yet, it's what I was saying: they're not like anything I've ever seen in a Linklater movie, but they're exactly right for this story, which is this tiny, tiny interval where Jesse and Céline are briefly reacquainted, but we know they're going to have to part again. And all those long, slow takes just emphasize that every little step they take on their walk is kind of precious. Even though, again, I don't think the movie slips into being precious itself.

Well, sweetie, I think it does. I mean, a little. That's all I was saying before. Beautifully acted, perfectly filmed and edited, lots of great stuff happening all over. Funny. Nicely frazzled, once the couple starts snapping at each other a bit. But, you know, this movie is kind of a big valentine to itself.

No, that's not true! I mean, The Barbarian Invasions, that was a valentine to itself...

Yes, and it was the reason I almost didn't come to this with you: arthouse sequels seem like absolute opportunities for self-congratulation, which is exactly what Barbarian Invasions was. And Before Sunset isn't nearly so self-absorbed. Plus, you actually want to know these people. But.... it pushes. Every once in a while, it lays things on a little thick, right?

Like when?

Well, how about when we're asked to believe that not only have these two people been passionately longing for each other all these years, and they lived in New York City around the same time, but that maybe Jesse even, like, espied Céline from his limo or his taxi or whatever while he was literally on the way to his wedding? I mean, really?

But again, this whole movie is a flirtation. Couldn't he just be saying that? Don't you think the filmmakers are on to the fact that Jesse and Céline both have a kind of penchant for mythologizing themselves, much less their bond with each other? I mean, Jesse wrote a friggin' book about it.

Yeah, but—sweetie. I mean, she doesn't deny it.

Of course she doesn't! She didn't write a book, but she loves the myth they've created about each other as much as he does, right?

Maybe. I mean, maybe. But if you believe that, you're never going to listen to my other reservation.

Which is?

The end is pretty corny.

Are you crazy? That was like... this... sublime...

Honey, there was no. way. the movie was going to end any differently than that. You don't reopen a can of worms like Before Sunrise, with all of its great ambiguities, and just settle the issue by throwing the two characters back together forever. But it's not as though the movie had the choice to part them forever, either. What audience would have gone for that? The whole movie, in the back of my mind, I'm like, "How is this screenplay going to manage to provisionally pair them up, without overdoing it?"

That's what you were thinking?

I mean, not at every moment. There was plenty else to— do I have to say it again? I really loved it.

Yeah, you have to say it again, because every comment you're offering about the movie is a criticism!

But that's just it! I mean, I'm not trying to be a sourpuss. At all. It was a warm movie, delicate, elegant. I'm sure in ten minutes, I'll really love it, but for now, I'm just trying to figure out this little kernel of skepticism that I feel in my response, and I think it's a kernel of skepticism that the movie itself is trying to cover over. I mean, why can't these characters talk to people on the street anymore? Why isn't there a waiter or waitress in that café? Why are so many of the sidewalks so empty? This poor chauffeur is putting up with them extending and extending their walk, but he doesn't really have any voice at all, not within the movie. Later on, that little exchange Céline has with her neighbor about how cute Jesse is is a great moment, but there's been nothing else like it all along—no street poet, no bartender, no crazy Viennese guys who are staging a play about a horse or a dog or whatever it was.

But sweetie, this is a different movie. It's nine years later, and he's been dreaming of her that whole time, and she's hustled herself to the bookshop to make sure she intercepts him... I mean, in this context, they aren't going to pause to talk to the street poet, you know? They have, like, an hour to find out if they really are soulmates, like they've been imagining. That's a completely different scenario than two college kids who are awkwardly trying not to feel ridiculous for hopping off a train together. Vienna was the attraction they had in common in that movie, and now, they are their own attraction. They aren't here to see Paris: he's exhausted, she already lives there. They're visiting each other.

Well said. But. But. Even without those little interviews with strangers, there are those other ways to suggest—you know, that old Casablanca line, whatever it is. In this crazy world, the problems of two people, etc., etc. This is a, what did you say? Exquisite movie about young, but not as young, confused people in love, who are totally absorbed for the moment in this love. I don't remember seeing that emotional state better portrayed. But how do you tell that story without the film itself being a little self-absorbed? Before Sunset just feels a little self-absorbed to me, in a way the first one didn't. It's like the movie doesn't doubt for a minute that we're as caught up in this relationship as they are, and I preferred it when we were discovering these people in an open-ended way, rather than basically knowing that the movie is already enraptured with them and will make sure we remain so.

Well, I guess. But I'm still not sure that you're criticizing the movie. Are you sure you aren't just describing how this movie is different from its predecessor?

I might be. That might be all this is. But I just, I don't know. I'll just say that I didn't want her to have a fluffy little cat, and I didn't want her to have this whole movie handed to her on a silver platter, where she gets to sing her own perfectly charming song about Jesse, and then wiggle her butt to a Nina Simone song, and the camera is suddenly in Jesse's point of view, just adoring this woman. I just felt kind of shoved around. Like, okay, okay, she is adorable, but let up already! Is this movie about these characters being in love or about me being in love with these characters? And specifically with her?

I may not be the best person to ask, because I think I am a little in love with her.

Oh, Jesus.

Well, really, when was the last time you wrote me a waltz?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, she wasn't so nice to the White guy, all right? Anyway. I don't know, B+ for me. It's like an A movie that I have these sneaky little B-level suspicions about. If I had gone on a date with this movie, I would so need a second date to quell my misgivings. Make sure I wasn't being swindled, manipulated. That sort of thing. I mean, look how quickly I plunged ahead with you, and that was obviously a mistake.

If you ask me, this movie is a second date, and I think it's the best second-date movie I think I've ever seen. I'm going for A all the way.

So let's compromise, and leave it at A.

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Adapted Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Kim Krazin, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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