Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Running Time: 80 minutes
The sequel craze has primarily been a tool of larger production companies and distributors to help crank out big budget and record-breaking summer releases. Sure, there have been some independent film franchises, probably the most notable being the El Mariachi trilogy, but like their blockbuster counterparts, those are heavy on action and light on art. There have been less than a handful of indie franchises, none of which have really equalled the quality of the original.
We have to wonder, however, if this trend is more the product of the director's "indie attitude", rather than a shortage of material out there to be explored. Independent directors usually work outside of the Hollywood system and consequently may consider themselves cinematic rebels. Would you approach Todd Solondz and ask him to make Welcome Back to the Dollhouse? Or how about revisiting Kenneth Lonergan's debut with You Can Count On Me Again? To many, the idea of revisiting Before Sunset might seem equally preposterous. Fortunately for indiephiles, Linklater's daring equals his artistic vision, and he has brought us a sequel without car chases, but with further character exploration, one that won't be considered another volume, but rather a completion of the original material.
Before Sunset takes place exactly nine years from where Before Sunrise left off. It begins in a Paris book shop, with Jesse signing autographs and answering questions about his bestseller romance. A blonde visitor from the past shows up at the store, unannounced, and they decide to catch up on the last nine years over a cup of coffee at a local cafe. This sets into motion an endless stream of dialog between the two, as they discuss and lament their lives now, their philosophical views of life, and of course that night in Vienna so long ago and the impact it had on each of their lives.
Before I go further, let me answer the question on many people's minds. Will someone be lost during the new film having not seen the first chapter? The answer is both yes and no. The major events of Before Sunrise are summarized early in the new film, but only at a cursory level. Someone could feasibly watch Before Sunset on its own, but the experience would be compromised. If possible, I recommend anyone who may be interested in this project, to run out to their video store and hope they can find Before Sunrise in stock. It pays off royally as far as the character development is concerned, which cannot be communicated effectively with a few short, flashback scenes near the beginning, and other scattered memories throughout. Not to mention, those that have seen the former can set a reasonable expectation for their experience during the latter. After all, Linklater's brand of romance, while brilliant, is quite unique and may not be for everyone.
As I already mentioned, there is a tremendous amount of dialog in Before Sunset. The entire film is a series of continuous conversations, taking place all in real time, without any time jumping editing techniques. Unlike the 1995 film, which covers an entire night (roughly 12 hours), the 2004 film covers a period that is much closer to the films actual running time. Everything appears to be natural, and each scene transitions smoothly, so that the audience is never really lost.
There are no flashy camera tricks. The only real movement of the camera is when it tracks with the two actors, keeping up with them as they walk through the park or through the cemetary. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but instead keeps the focus on the two actors, where it should be. Again, this contributes to the natural, realistic setting, and makes the film more believable.
The subjects of Jesse's and Celine's conversations will seem familiar, for the most part, to those who have seen Before Sunset. They are still both deep thinkers with a unique outlook on life, and they spend a great deal of time contrasting their ideas with one another. They explore each other's mind, which not only develops their connection. but also solidifies it by establishing mutual respect first. The primary difference between the two films is the nine years that passed between them. In this time, both Jesse and Celine have matured. They've grown up, learned what the real world is all about, and most importantly they've lived their lives and been affected by their surroundings. Their musings in the first film were sometimes infantile, fantastical, and not really grounded in reality. In Before Sunset, they both express many of the same opinions they held nine years prior, but now they are more concrete, based on actual knowledge and experience rather than speculation.
All of these efforts would be fruitless if it weren't for some exceptional acting from both leads. It is Julie Delpy, however, who steals the show. Her semi-neurotic and obsessed ranting combined with her unpredictable and excited nature make every scene a pleasure to watch. Hawke plays the straight man. His intentions and desires are more obvious, while Delpy is guarded and more defensive. He spends a lot of time listening to and fawning over Delpy, and is ultimately upstaged by her, but there are no faults to be found in his performance. Their chemistry together is a credit to both performers, and hopefully both will be noticed for their work.
Let me just say that the ending is nothing short of beautiful. Of course I won't reveal it to you, but it stuck with me immediately. Already I consider it among the best endings I've seen in film, which is praise I wouldn't usually give out so hastily.
We all know that poor sequels can tarnish the original films. We only have to look at last year's pair of miserable Matrix sequels to see evidence of that. It is rare, however, when a sequel can actually improve the experience and the lasting value of the first film. In fact, I can only think of one example. Linklater succeeds with Sunset just like Coppola succeeded with The Godfather II, albeit on a much smaller scale. The characters in the first are even more endearing after seeing them in the second, just like how a good second act can make a repeat viewing of the first act more pleasurable. We can't help but appreciate their youth, and yes, their foolishness, when contrasted with their more mature and realistic sides as they approach middle age.
Before Sunset forges a lot of new ground, and shows that good art can pick up where it left off. It will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come, perhaps as the son that championed the father. Yes, that means that it is the superior volume. The ending, the acting, the seamless flow, and Julie Delpy seal the deal. I don't say this about many films, but Before Sunset is an instant masterpiece.