Adult relationships, about which I know almost nothing, are complicated things. The greatest single complication is that they bear no resemblance to what we see in movies. Movie relationships are in a foreign language that everyone has learned to read and listen to, but never could quite get the accent right. But it isn’t just the dialogue, it’s the plot as well. As someone who watches a lot of movies, I find this infuriating. We just made eye contact, that means you start a conversation, right? Why don’t I start the conversation? Don’t talk nonsense. Some movies, though, try to cut through the generally accepted language of the adult relationship and get to something deeper. Before Sunset (2004) is the follow-up to the enormously romantic Before Sunrise (1995) (review) (and prequel to Before Midnight (2013)) and addresses the after-20’s.
Nine years ago, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train and spent the night walking around Vienna. They promised one another that they would return to that Vienna train station six months later and pick up their relationship where they’d left off. Jesse wrote a book about these events and, at a book signing in Paris, he sees Celine again. In some ways, things haven’t changed a bit, but over the course of a few hours—before Jesse needs to catch his flight back to the States—little and large changes come out. They walk around Paris talking about this and that, picking up, if not where they left off, then from a few yards distant.
This is a very brief movie. IMDb says 80 minutes, but it’s closer to 75. For the first hour, Before Sunset disguises itself as an apology for Before Sunrise’s hopeless romanticism. Celine is a little bit crazier, Jesse is in a difficult marriage, and they both have been living with the pain of love lost through bad scheduling. Fear not romantics, for in the closing moments, there is no ambiguity and it is glorious. But that glorious moment of knowledge where we see that Jesse has decided upon the obviously correct choice, the first hour casts a poor reflection. I’m a little irked that I feel the need to tell you to watch this movie because it forces me to remember Before Sunrise and the first hour of Before Sunset. There is very little of the wonderful intimacy of Before Sunrise. Instead, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels in this awkward conceit that real life will somehow stand in the way of their chemistry.
It’s the chemistry that saves the movie. It isn’t the kind of on-screen chemistry that is often spoken about like between Audrey Hepburn and anyone else. It’s more like alchemy. They don’t seem to fit in any way, but they tolerate each other so completely that they’re fools for staying apart for a moment. This isn’t an accident. Richard Linklater, with his co-writers Hawke and Delpy, talks, through the dialogue, about the banal realities of adult relationships and dispels the idea of constant fireworks or creamy romance. It’s romantic ideal, though, is in the rare connection that two people can share. It can’t be forced, as Jesse attempted, through sheer commitment. It’s just there for Jesse and Celine by whom neither man nor time can put asunder. It’s nice, it’s semi-mature, and an excellent follow-up to the well-balanced Before Sunrise.
The difference in the production qualities between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are striking. Linklater had a budget of $2.5 million for Before Sunrise and $10 million for Before Sunset and very little of it went into sets. The camera work was occasionally more ambitious (I noticed at least one large crane shot) and occasionally more conventional (the camera never attempts to capture normal Parisian life). It’s all professional and tight. Perhaps this underlines the characters’ more stable lives and personas, secure in their own skin without having to search for all the answers. Of maybe the first one was really profitable, so they got more money this time.