Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset (2004)


(director/writer: Richard Linklater; screenwriters: Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke/based on a story and characters created by Mr. Linklater and Kim Krizan; cinematographer: Lee Daniel; editor: Sandra Adair; music: Glover Gill; cast: Ethan Hawke (Jesse Wallace), Julie Delpy (Celine); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Anne Walker-Mcbay; Warner Independent Pictures; 2004)

“Films about romantic relationships don’t get any better than Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Films about romantic relationships don’t get any better than Richard Linklater’s (“Slacker”/”Dazed and Confused”/ “Tape”) Before Sunset, which is a sequel that matches in quality his wonderfully delirious 1995 Before Sunrise. Linklater seamlessly tells you all you have to know about the first version, so that coming in cold to this later version will not be a factor. The lyrical film is based on a story and characters created by Mr. Linklater and Kim Krizan, while the stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke contributed to the screenplay (probably deserve as much credit for the dialogue as Mr. Linklater).

The tagline asks the question, What if you had a second chance with the loved one that got away?

The immature American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the affected French graduate student Celine (Julie Delpy) were strangers in their 20s who met on a Eurail train and spent an unforgettable 14 hours together in Vienna on June 16, 1994, where they made love at night in the park and vowed in the morning to meet six months later on the same train platform they were standing on. We learn that meeting never took place. It is now nine years later and Jesse has written a minor bestselling book that is a fictionalized version of that affair. He is now finishing up a book signing at Shakespeare & Company, that celebrated institution in the Left Bank of Paris, at the conclusion of a 12-day, ten-city European tour promoting the novel. At the end of his Q&A with the press, he spots Celine in the bookstore and though he has a short time to catch his plane to New York he can’t resist getting reacquainted with the love of his life. They are both now in their 30s and are interested in finding out what happened since they last met. The first thing on his mind is why she never showed, as Celine apologizes that she couldn’t make it because her beloved grandmother passed away that day in Budapest and she had to attend the funeral. Being young, daring and unconventional, they foolishly never exchanged telephone numbers or last names or calculated anything could happen to prevent their meeting if they wanted to show.

After a walk through a picaresque alley Celine takes Jesse to a cafe, where over coffee they playfully fence with how much they should tell each other. Jesse seems to have a happy life with his book success and marriage to a pretty school teacher, and is the proud father of a young son. While Celine works for an international environmental group that requires a lot of traveling. She had many relationships, and is now seeing a photo-journalist whom she says she is in love with.

The film works in real time (80 minutes for an 80-minute story). We next follow the pair on a walk in the park and soon they catch a short tourist boat ride on the enchanting Seine. When the airport driver picks them up, he first takes Celine back to her apartment. By this time the couple have opened up (the film is all talk, as the drama is built around their very natural conversations). They tell how crushed they were that they didn’t meet again, and how they never found the same love in anyone else. Both characters though likable also could be smug, and their talkative personalities might not please everyone. But the point is that these two are made for each other. Jesse tells how he was so disappointed when she didn’t show that he searched for answers about life in Buddhism and later with Trappist monks. But in a pretentious way he tells how those life philosophies of withdrawing from the world couldn’t be fully accepted by him. While she retorts by saying she feels alive only when desiring things.

In the last twenty minutes, the film leaves you in a state of suspense if the couple will remain doomed lovers or will Jesse miss his plane and remain with Celine as most in the audience would want. In the last scene, Jesse has come up to her apartment to hear an original song she composed. After that song, Jesse goes through her CD collection and plays a Nina Simone performance of “Just in Time.” Celine does a perfectly sensual imitation of Simone, and the time for Jesse to catch his plane is growing shorter.

The situation was real, the characters were appealing and had great chemistry together, the dialogue was intelligent and the romance story was entertaining. If all the verbage and beating around the bush without saying what they really mean doesn’t deter you, then you have seen one hell of a film. Delpy and Hawke convinced as soul mates meant only for each other, as their performances were confident of the characters they were playing. Delpy lit up the screen with her warmth, energy, vulnerability and ordinariness. Every romantic gesture seemed to come from the heart. While Hawke’s performance was engaging and open, magically capturing how rapturously dizzy a regular joe feels when genuinely in love.

This is the kind of romantic drama about real people that very rarely (if ever) works out as well as this one did. Indeed, it does justice in continuing the original story and remarkably topping it off with a sense of fulfillment.

Before Sunset was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.