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Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise, which stars a dashing young Ethan Hawke and an adorably baby-faced Julie Delpy as strangers who meet in Vienna to share a single memorable night of intimate conversation, is one of the most effective and haunting romantic movies I've come across. It hits all my buttons—and, believe me, romantic films rarely hold any sway over me. So it's saying a lot when I admit that Before Sunrise is, for me, pretty much all by itself among the countless love stories on celluloid. This is a romantic film that conveys exactly the right levels of youth and love and innocence and naïveté and smarts. It's a film that stays with you, despite the fact that it hasn't got much of a plot … and its dialog sometimes has that not-quite-real indy-film sheen of intellectual fantasy … and it ends on a note of ambiguity. But that ambiguity is perhaps precisely why Before Sunrise—an admittedly minor, low-budget experiment—has stood the test of time and has become a force to be reckoned with in the rental arena.
Before Sunrise seems the ultimate setup for a sequel, and yet part of you hopes that that sequel might never be made. Surely, any attempt to spell out the continuing adventures of these indelible characters would pale next to the resonant lives you've already given them in your imagination. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine end their remarkable, wandering evening on a note of welcome open-endedness, not exchanging any kind of personal information but promising to meet again, in Vienna, in six months. And—heart-rendingly—they part, leaving the memory of their night a perfect, isolated series of moments. It's probably one of the ballsiest endings ever for a love story, and maybe that's why it always gets my juices flowing. It doesn't conform to any Hollywood templates; it's refreshingly new and tentative and scary. And because of it, across the Internet, elaborate mythologies have sprung up around the limitless possibilities of these characters' futures.
Cut to 9 years later.
Linklater and his cast—all of them older and wiser—have decided to return to their characters, to check in on them and see how they're doing with their lives. I'll admit that, at first, I balked at the very notion of digging up Jesse and Celine. They already lived on in my mind. (An intriguing aspect of Linklater's animated 2001 experiment Waking Life is that Jesse and Celine appear in a short segment, showing us that—at least in some kind of dream reality—the two have ended up together, happily lazy in bed. I remember experiencing a joyful buzz when I first watched that segment, yearning to learn more about their shared life!) But the more I read about the sequel project, the more excited I became. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy embarked on a lengthy collaborative writing process, back and forth over email and over coffee, infusing their notes and scenes with their own personalities, giving Jesse and Celine new, more mature life shaped by the filmmakers' acquired wisdom and experience. The result is Before Sunset, a film that I never thought I wanted to exist, but a film that I ended up approaching eagerly, if only to see whether Jesse and Celine really ended up meeting six months later in Vienna. Or if they ever got together again at all. I've only rarely felt such "outside-the-movie" emotions about film characters, and that alone tells you something about the power of Before Sunrise.
At the start of Before Sunset, Jesse is at the tail end of a book tour in Paris, promoting an autobiographical novel he's penned about that fateful night in Vienna. When Celine shows up at the signing, and they share a secret glance from across the room, you feel a remarkable burst of energy, an eagerness to return to these characters' shared world. Jesse has a plane to catch in just a couple hours, so he and Celine make the most of their time, wandering the streets and catching up with each other. And before long, the question comes, "Were you there in Vienna?" I won't reveal the answer here, except to say that not everything went as planned, and as the inevitable words of regret and sadness and joy and anger come tumbling out of their mouths, for the film's entire 75-minute running time, you're on the edge of your seat—listening to two people talk!
The great accomplishment of Before Sunset is that it's a truthful, extremely satisfying extension of the personalities that this same team introduced in Before Sunrise. I can pay the film no greater compliment than to say that the new film exceeds my expectations and actually delivers better than I thought possible. Jesse and Celine are now in their thirties, and they have all the baggage that comes with age and separate lives lived. They stand in stark contrast with their younger selves, who in the first film were full of idealism and naïveté, and brimming with potential. Whereas in the first film they approached their adventure from a place of endless possibility, in this film they're coming from a place of watered-down dreams, dashed hopes, and the approach of cynicism. And yet, as ever, they find room for hope.
Before Sunset takes place in real time, giving Jesse and Celine's latest encounter a palpable sense of immediacy and even urgency. You might think Linklater's penchant for long Steadicam shots of the couple simply walking the streets would grow tiresome, but the effect of the 7-minute takes is exactly the opposite, placing us there with them, as if we're walking backwards, facing them as they come toward us. And Hawke and Delpy effortlessly rise to the challenge of carrying on a seemingly spontaneous, ad-libbed conversation, appearing natural though edgy with the nervousness of their meeting, as they walk those streets—probably because they're so familiar with the script they fashioned themselves.
One of the first things you'll notice as the film begins to unspool is that Hawke looks a little older, a little more angular in his features, a little more smoke-weathered. Delpy remains luminescent, but she has matured into a lovely woman, a little worn down by the cold realities of the world but holding on to her idealism fiercely. The way the cast and crew have infused their characters' aging and experience into this new tale is remarkable—there's a tinge of sadness that makes Before Sunset an even more emotionally powerful film than Before Sunrise. I'm thinking of the moment toward the end when Celine reaches a delicate hand tentatively toward Jesse's hair, without his knowledge, her heart open to him even though she's unsure how to proceed. I'm also thinking of this new film's tantalizing fade-out, which rivals the effect of Before Sunrise's ending. They're the kind of moments that make these characters transcend their film and make you hope that the talented trio of director and stars might revisit them again some time—say, in another 9 years.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents Before Sunset in a flat 1.85:1 anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original theatrical presentation. Although the look of the DVD is in line with what I remember from the theater, I can't help but feel disappointed by the lack of depth to the image. Before Sunset looks like an old film, a dreary film, with a distinct lack of vivid color and a gauze-like blanket of grain. Detail is okay but seems obscured. Many outdoor moments suffer from blooming on bright surfaces, and when the characters, at one point, take a boat ride and periodically float beneath bridges, shadow detail is extremely weak. As mentioned, colors are muted. Flesh tones seem artificially pink-orange, and background greenery looks bleak. I noticed very minor edge halos and ringing.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is very laidback—appropriate, considering that Before Sunset, like its predecessor, is one of the more dialog-rich films you're likely to see. Voices are clear—if not entirely resonant. I would have preferred a little more low-end oomph to these conversations. And perhaps a little openness across the front would have been welcome. As is, the voices come straight from the center, with minor ambient effects coming from left and right. Even when Celine sings her waltz, the song comes straight from the front, with very little resonance. Surround activity is essentially non-existent.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The first thing you'll notice is that you get forced Trailers for Criminal, At Home at the End of the World, and We Don't Live Here Anymore. And there's really not much of substance beyond those.
The primary supplement here is a fairly frothy 10-minute featurette called On the Set of Before Sunset. Through interview contributions with Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and producer Ann Walker-Mebay, we get the skinny on the origin of the idea for the sequel, and we get a good feel for the unique collaborative writing effort that led to the screenplay. They also speak about the three weeks of rehearsal that led to a mere 15-day shoot. It feels like an EPK piece, but it held my interest.
Finally, you get the film's Theatrical Trailer in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Before Sunset is an unexpectedly wonderful, low-key follow-up to Before Sunrise. The sweet maturation of Jesse and Celine is something I feel almost privileged to witness. Unfortunately, the DVD presentation is average at best. Image quality is subpar, and the very modest supplements are frothy. Let's hope for a nice special edition of both films down the road.