Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise is an exceptional film. It’s an unusually unhurried look at young love, at idealism and hopes and dreams, capturing a broad spectrum of emotions as its protagonists, Jesse and Celine, spend one fateful afternoon in Vienna. They meet by chance, both of them on their way home – her back to Paris, him to the US. Their time is limited, but they make the most of it.
Before Sunrise does not have a plot in the traditional sense; instead, the two characters simply wander about the city while talking, philosophizing, joking, flirting, and ultimately falling in love. At the end of their time together, they decide not to write or call each other lest their blossoming romance should sizzle out. Instead, they agree to meet again in six months and the movie fades out as they part ways, each character quietly reflecting on what just happened. It’s up to the viewer to decide what becomes of them.
Or at least that was the case until 2004, when Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reunited to continue the story. As a sequel to one of my favorite movies of all time, Before Sunset doubles down on what made its predecessor special while broadening its horizons. If Before Sunrise is adolescent romance and 2013’s Before Midnight, the trilogy’s third installment, is realistic compromise, Sunset is the middle ground between the two extremes, the place where they coalesce and mingle. It is the story of two people who lose and find each other again and again. It is the most romantic film in which the characters never kiss. It seduces you with the promise of a relaxed hangout movie, not unlike the first one, and then hits you like a sledgehammer.
December 16th, 1994 is the date on which Jesse and Celine agreed to meet again. It didn’t work out. They had no way of contacting each other, so they never got in touch. Nine years later, Jesse has written a slightly fictionalized novel about their one night together and is wrapping up the last stop of the accompanying book tour in Paris. The attending journalists probe at him, ask him how much of the story is autobiographical, whether he believes there is a future for the two characters. As Jesse dances around giving a straight answer, the film flashes back to Vienna, showing us glimpses of Celine as he remembers her – and then cuts to her right there, in the bookshop with Jesse. Their eyes meet. He hastily improvises a way out of the interview and walks over to her. Of course the reunion is awkward. “Do you wanna get a cup of coffee?”, Jesse asks. Celine replies, “Don’t you have a flight to catch?”
He does. In less than ninety minutes, Jesse has to be at the airport. Once again, it’s now or never, and so the two start walking. First to a nearby café, then to keep moving, finally to Celine’s apartment. The chemistry that sparked up at their first meeting is palpable right away, but this time, there is something deeper. Nine years are a long time and it has left its marks on the star-crossed lovers. Sure, Jesse and his wife have a beautiful son. Sure, he has just written a bestselling novel. Sure, Celine has become an environmental activist just like she always wanted. Sure, she is strong and independent and proudly proclaims so. But are they happy with where they have ended up? Have they ever gotten over that one night in Vienna?
The answer, obviously, is no. After catching up, the two begin to reminisce. They start asking, what if? What if they had made that December date, what if they had exchanged phone numbers? Over the film’s 75-minute runtime, façades and pretenses slowly crumble away, and Linklater simply allows us to watch these two people bare their souls to one another. Jesse and Celine walk through Paris in long, unbroken shots, the focus on them and not on flashy filmmaking. The city’s streets are bathed in warm, golden hues, reflecting the serendipitous nature of their encounter. What really makes the movie soar, though, is simply experiencing these two people interact. Delpy and Hawke co-wrote Before Sunset’s screenplay along with the director and it shows in their every gesture, every single hesitation or emphasis on a line. They cease to be actors and embody their characters with a realism that is hard to describe until you see it. It’s there, when Jesse backpedals after a joke, when Celine tries but fails to stroke his hair as he details the ruinous state of his marriage. At first reluctant to even touch each other, they get closer and closer together as they reconnect, culminating in a hug they both have waited nine years for. That embrace is much more tender and subdued than you would expect from a romantic movie’s climax, but all the more heartfelt for it. It feels real and deserved.
With nine years of “what if” comes bitterness. As they ride a tourist boat along the Seine (passing by Notre Dame and casually talking about how it one day will be gone, an eerie observation after recent events), Jesse reveals that he and his wife have fallen out of love. Even on the way to his own wedding, he was thinking about Celine. As he puts it, “I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date”. Celine on the other hand has increasingly isolated herself from romance, feeling betrayed by Jesse’s re-imagining of her in his book. “I put all of my romanticism into that one night and you took it with you”, she sneers at him as she lays bare the anxieties that plague her relationships. All the frustrations that have built up over the last decade rise to the surface. It is here that you can see glimpses of both past and future. In Celine’s angry rebuke of Jesse’s idealizing her, the woman who, nine years down the road, will threaten to walk out on her and Jesse’s marriage is just as visible as her younger, more naively passionate self. Jesse’s constant joking and his readily available platitudes foreshadow the careless and casually hurtful husband he will become in Before Midnight just as much as they do recall his more jovial and wild days in Before Sunrise. It is precisely because we have spent so much time with Jesse and Celine that even the smallest moments can hit us right where it hurts. The films’ plotless nature gives them time to fill every gesture with meaning, flesh out the characters beyond what would normally be possible. When Jesse is hesitant to take Celine by the arm, we remember him not thinking twice about the same gesture nine years prior. Now they are older and supposedly wiser, both less vulnerable with all the protections they have built up and more vulnerable when those barriers break down.
Memory is the first and last thing the two discuss in Before Sunset. “It was both flattering and disturbing”, Celine recounts her experience reading Jesse’s novel. “To see myself living in someone else’s memory.” They argue about specific details of their night together, about how many times they had sex or whether they had sex at all. Their lives in between the movies have shaped the way they think about Vienna and now they are re-shaping it again. “We are rewriting that night, it doesn’t have that bad ending anymore”, Celine casually sums up one of the movies major themes. At the end of the movie, as Jesse is already running late for his flight, Celine plays him an intimate song that she wrote about their encounter. As he recognizes this (and she notices him recognizing), smiles creep across their faces that speak not just of a momentary reconnection but of their deepest emotions being roused. Jesse remains on the couch, unwilling to leave as he watches Celine dance and sing along to a Nina Simone recording. She recounts how she saw Simone live and he watches, transfixed. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane”, Celine jokes, imitating the singer. Jesse couldn’t care less: “I know.” Nothing in the world is going to get him out of this very moment. As Celine dances, the movie fades to black.
Just like Jesse and Celine are re-evaluating Before Sunrise’s events all throughout Before Sunset (and will continue to do so in Before Midnight), living with these movies for the past few years has made me go through a similar process. Watching the first movie right before my A-levels, I naturally identified with their youthful, spur-of-the-moment passion. Now, only three years later, I already catch myself judging them differently, empathizing with different parts of their hopes and dreams. As much as I love it, for the longest time, Before Sunrise used to be the movie I watched after my first break-up. Now I associate it with the start of a new relationship. In nine years’ time, will I look back on these movies, perhaps on this article, like Jesse and Celine do on their past selves? What will 2028’s Claudius think about all the things this text touches on?
One of the most exciting aspects of living with art for a long time is observing this kind of development. Some works, especially music, are particularly important to one moment in your life. Others will stay with you, grow and evolve alongside you, and it is those films, books or songs you should cherish just like you do the people in your life. The Before trilogy is one of those cornerstones for me and watching Before Sunset again mere minutes before starting this article made me realize that. So excuse me, I have a plane to miss.