Before Sunset


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

A moment can change your life, and the memory of that moment can haunt you until the day you die.

Director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is full of moments like this. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) borrows Celine’s (Julie Delpy’s) cigarette to light his own and their fingertips touch. She smiles nervously, talks nervously, hides herself like a nervous cat, knowing that if the connection between them is real it’s bound to hurt in the end.

Jesse and Celine had had a brief affair nine years ago, when they were both traveling on the Eurail. Their encounter is the subject of an earlier Linklater film I have not seen (Before Sunrise), but not having seen the original film doesn’t diminish this one. In fact the affair had a sort of confidential intensity since Linklater doesn’t dumb down this film with gratuitous flashbacks. We aren’t necessarily party to the intimacy Jesse and Celine shared as young adults, and don’t see the acts that have left such an impression on their lives.

What we do see is the aftermath of this event, and we must reconstruct it from the importance the characters give it, the way their lives have circled this otherwise inconsequential incident.

Jesse is in Paris pushing his first novel, which is not coincidently about his one-night encounter with Celine. She meets him at a bookstore where he’s signing copies of the book and the pair saunter through the streets of the City of Light. They had agreed to meet after the train trip, nine years ago, but there was a tragedy in Celine’s family and prevented her from showing up. At the time they had agreed not to exchange numbers, afraid that doing so would make it feel like a trivial date.

In the years since neither has found the sort of connection they had with one another when they were both in their early 20s.

“I remember that night better than entire years,” Jessie says. His book was an existential declaration that it had happened, it was real, but it was also intended as a sort of message to let Celine know that he hadn’t forgotten her. At first she plays coy, pretending not to recall the details of their meeting, but it’s obvious that the night marked both of them for life.

Jessie and Celine rush toward one another just as time is pulling them apart. Jessie’s plane leaves that evening, and the real world seems intent of driving them apart again. They try to connect what time they have with each, digging deeper and deeper until they reach a climax.

Part My Dinner with Andre and part Lost in Translation, Before Sunset is a sweet, sometimes talky film about the moments that make up our lives. The sad fact is that life did move on, burying the people Jesse and Celine were and forcing a wedge between their adult selves, and as they talk their conversation invariably returns to that one night, in 1994, when everything was right in the world and these people had their whole lives in front of them.

Now they are in their 30s. They’ve survived disillusionment and heartbreak, but they never survived one another. When they’re debating ecology or coffee shop etiquette, they’re really avoiding discussing that day, as though it is too tender to bring up. And when they’re talking about that day they’re treading carefully, thinking perhaps that the experience is too fragile and beautiful to survive in the real world.

You can see the sparks across the table as they drink coffee. Linklater’s dialog is lively, realistic and smart, though it does occasionally become preachy. Hawke and Delpy save Before Sunset from becoming stilted and purely intellectual, like Linklater’s Waking Life. There’s real chemistry between these characters, and the cast and Linklater are smart enough to fill in the gaps left between extended soliloquies with gestures, expressions, and other nice touches.

Many of us recall Hawke as the prototypical Gen-Xer from his portrayal of cool, ironic disenfranchised young people in films like Reality Bites, but here he wears his suffering on his face. Hawke looks like he’s in his 30s, and every line on his face describe moments of pain, loss, failure and struggle. Mark this moment, boys and girls, because Before Sunset is the first Generation X, mid-life crisis film.

The fragile, scatterbrained, precocious children they were have grown into fragile, scatterbrained, precocious adults, and a part of them remains untouched. Yes, the too sensitive romantic in them has been hurt, they sting from the failures of their romantic lives, and worry that they’ve become deadened by the years, but the film is such a tender celebration of love that what we leave the theater with isn’t a feeling of regret: It’s a confirmation that every connection we make is precious.


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