I have seen Before Sunrise more than any other movie, save Amadeus (about nine times for Before Sunrise, about fifteen times for Amadeus). In fact, it was at one time my favorite movie, before Lost in Translation came along and knocked it from its pedestal. Still, it remains one of my favorites.
In this film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American man, meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French woman, on a train. Due to a argumentative couple, Celine moves to a seat opposite Jesse. They strike up a conversation. He invites her to the cafe car. They talk some more. When they reach Vienna (Jesse’s stop), he has a crazy idea: since he was just going to wander around the city until his flight left the next morning (having no money for a hotel), why doesn’t she join him? She agrees, and the rest of the movie chronicles their conversations and encounters with Viennese locals, and their growing attachment to each other. But, they also know that, when the morning comes…
In its own way, Before Sunrise is a perfect movie. The conversations are interesting, the characters are likeable and well-drawn, the scenery is gorgeous (Vienna!), the music complements the mood, and the movie accomplishes its purpose as an ode to young, idyllic love, a love that is made perfect by its brevity. This type of love, however, cannot endure. Or can it?
Enter Before Sunset. When I first heard that Richard Linklater was filming a sequel to Before Sunrise, I cringed. How could they make a sequel to such a great film, especially since part of that greatness concerned an ending ambiguous enough that the audience could decide for themselves the future fate of Jesse and Celine? And yet, Before Sunset complements Before Sunrise perfectly. While the earlier film takes place mostly at night (hence the title), Before Sunset takes place during the day. While the first film takes place in Vienna, the second film takes place in Paris, where Celine lives. While the first film celebrates young love in all its innocence–in its images, in Jesse and Celine’s conversations, in their naive belief that they can keep the relationship going–the second movie deals with its effects. How would such a love affair affect the rest of someone’s life? Would other relationships measure up? And, if these characters were given a second chance, would things turn out differently?
The same types of philosophical conversations are spoken in both movies, but in Before Sunset, they seem like shadows of the first movie’s conversations, much like the characters have become shadows of their former selves (both characters appear gaunter in this film, with faces that have become lined with the responsibilities of everyday life). Perhaps the characters, in their conversations, are trying to pretend that everything is the same as it was the last time they walked through a European city together. But it isn’t. Jesse is married now and has a kid. Celine is still single, but that is because she has never met a man to measure up to Jesse. At one point, she tells him that their one night spent in Vienna “ruined” all future relationships for her.
Here is stark reality, the movie even occurring in real time. Unlike Before Sunrise, there are no fringe theater actors, no fortune tellers, no poets by the water, no man playing harpsichord in the basement of his house nor wine drunk in a park from filched glasses and a bottle received on the promise of future payment. In fact, there are no people to disturb this revelry, but none to add to the magic, either. Any people that Celine and Jesse address–outside of each other–are either off camera or in the background, and they are addressed briefly. The longest interaction that either character has with someone else is when Jesse responds to reporters’ questions at the beginning of the film (he is on a book promotion tour, having written a novel based on his experience in Vienna).
What both movies have in common is that they are dialogue-intensive, yet both characters say the most about themselves when they aren’t speaking. Celine hesitates before getting off the train with Jesse in Before Sunrise. In Before Sunset, she reaches out a hand to comfort him, then withdraws it. With Jesse, notice how he acts in the record booth in the first movie. Or when he asks Celine for a kiss. In the second movie, notice how his eyes react to Celine at the end of the movie. Another similarity between both films is that Jesse is operating on a schedule. He has to catch a flight from Vienna in the first film. He has to catch a flight from Paris in the second film.
Though Before Sunset is much shorter than the first film (eighty minutes compared to one hundred and five), it digs deeper into its characters’ souls. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine were carefree twenty-somethings; now, they carry the baggage of being adults with responsibilities. Before Sunrise is the more crowd-pleasing of the two, because it projects what we wish real relationships (and life) were like. Before Sunset is less likable not because it is a lesser film, but because it disappoints us in the way that sequels (in life and in movies) often do. And yet, unlike most sequels, Before Sunset does not disappoint due to lack of quality. If the first movie is a projection of what our lives should be like, the second movie is a projection of what our lives are like.
And yet, as I said, these films complement each other. Even the endings (and no, I won’t spoil the endings for you here). I will only say this: both characters are older and wiser in Before Sunset than they are in Before Sunrise. So, being older and wiser, will Jesse allow Celine to drift out of his life again? Will Celine allow Jesse to leave hers? Will reality allow the fairy tale to continue?