In 1994, Richard Linklater told us the story of two young people -- Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy -- meeting in Vienna, getting to know each other, and falling in love in Before Sunrise. Nine years later, Celine and Jesse met again, and they continued the conversation that they started almost a decade prior. It is rare that a sequel manages to stand above the original, but Before Sunset is just such a film. Also, incredibly enough, this film manages to elevate its predecessor as well: some of the flaws of Sunrise, I know realize, were intentional. It's a true testament to amazing writing -- the conversations, much like the characters, have evolved. They are more measured, emotionally astute, but brilliantly enough, they are never void of the raw yearning for love and connection that has made these films resonate with so many people.
Like its predecessor, Before Sunset is short on plot and heavy on the dialogue, following Celine and Jesse through Paris as the latter kills time before flying back to the States; he has finished a book tour through Europe to promote his new novel, written about his encounter with Celine. But the conversation has changed in this continuation of the first film; they talk about how their lives unfolded in the interim between first meeting and reuniting. The change in the discussion is natural given the time that has gone by, and it's challenging material for anyone, single or otherwise. The unflinching examination of relationships and unrequited love is told with incredible technical proficiency; it is shot in real-time using long, uninterrupted takes that go on for as long as seven minutes before cutting to a new shot. Capturing actors talking to each other for that long is a feat in itself, but doing so as said actors walk through a crowded city street is nothing short of a marvel. There may be films in this decade with more panache and flair, but I guarantee you will find few that boast the same level of technical artistry.
Much has been made about the ending, but I found it to be PERFECT. The slow fade, the utter charm of Celine's Nina Simone impression, the ambiguity, and the wonderful look in Jesse's eyes as his youth, hope and happiness come rushing back to him while watching Celine dancing and singing (foreshadowed in the opening scene).
Of course Hawke and Delpy are sublime. This film requires incredibly subtle acting, and these are Oscar worthy performances that weren't recognized. Why? Because they are not showy. But don't be mistaken: this is acting at its finest. Much of this film, like life, is acted with the eyes. Witness how Hawke stares at Delpy as she discusses her failed relationships on the ferry, or the sadness and longing in Delpy's eyes as she sings her love song.
I contend that this film is better than the first, because it provides a more unique perspective. In Sunset, we see the sobering effects of age and disappointment etched in their faces and clouding their lives. There is more at stake here, for they are nine years older, have made their share of mistakes, feel imprisoned by responsibilities, and must confront their shortcomings and problems. This is how European Cinema used to be -- and Hollywood, too for that matter. Naturally real and magical in the details. An amazing achievement.