Sequential Cinema: ‘Before Sunset’ (2004)

Sequential Cinema is a look at film series throughout cinema history from blockbuster franchises to smaller and international fare.

Nine years after director Richard Linklater left Jesse and Celine, he returns to bring them back with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in tow. In fact, the idea of a second film was in discussions for as long as the time span between the two films. The sequel in itself is surprising because this is not a big-budget franchise. Before Sunrise is a cult classic for the independent film lovers and those who needed a break from 90’s rom-coms.

Before Sunset answers the question from the end of the last film: did they ever cross paths again? Even more so, did they actually have sex that night? With only $2 million to spare on budget, it’s time to hit the ground running on one of the best follow-ups to a film ever. 

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is now a writer promoting his new book, This Time, a fictional novel of his time in Vienna. After a quick Q&A, he sees Celine once more in the bookstore. They decide to talk again, once again before Jesse has to catch a flight right as the sunset creeps in. Within minutes of the conversation, it is as if they had only seen each other days ago. Yet, they never met again six months later as planned at the end of the first film. These two have not seen one another in nine years.

Celine’s grandmother, her reason for the train trip, had died and she returned to visit, missing the date. Yet, Jesse did go to Vienna. He was there and she wasn’t. In a lesser film, this would lead to Jesse going into a fit of anger and upset nature with Celine trying to calm him down. This movie instead Jesse laughs it off saying it’s okay and that he understands completely. It’s brought up later, but gets a reaction. That was an indicator that this movie was going to be an all-timer.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) stares at Celine (Julie Delpy) for a moment after nine years of not seeing one another. Source: Warner Bros.

The beauty of the film is that these two have matured and grown in their years. Celine is working as an environmentalist with a boyfriend who is a journalist. Jesse has a wife and a son named Hank who he cares about. Within the span of an afternoon, it’s discovered they’ve become disillusioned by their lives. The dialogue and performances do the work once more in a delicate way that subverts the classic notion of “show, don’t tell.”

The reason Before Sunset works is showing how much their one brief encounter affected their view on life and love. Everything has paled in comparison to that idyllic moment in time. The reunion itself brings out all these emotions between the two that would have remained bottled up for the better part of their lives. Yet, it’s on full display and without the distractions of the sights of the city as they only have till the end of the afternoon.
The typical film set in France would have them visit the sights and such in the town, but this film has no time for that. The city isn’t a character, nor is it romanticized. It’s the backdrop for these two to rekindle a relationship. Yet, both are holding off on expressing their romantic notion for one another again. This is due to the fact Hawke and Delpy having a hand in writing their characters. This allows them to reflect on their own personal lives within the characters.
Hawke at this point is still married to Thurman, who he would go on to divorce right near this film’s release. This ended up leading to rumors that Jesse is the reflection of Hawke’s own married life. Delpy herself had been in the indie film scene rarely doing mainstream projects.

It’s a great marriage of art with the artist serving to give a window into what the players think and feel. This is why the sequel itself works because this is as close to reality as one can get. Celine pours her heart out in a very heartbreaking car ride.

In a way, I put all my romanticism into that one night, and I was never able to feel all this again. Like, somehow this night took things away from me and I expressed them to you, and you took them with you!

– Celine (Julie Delpy), Before Sunset

Celine read the book, reminding her of the night they met. She feels that everything after that night has faltered. All her exes are husbands now and she is single having lost touch with the notion of love. She was a romantic, now a disillusioned version of her past self. “I would have said, but at least they could have asked me!” she shouts . Celine still remembers that they had sex, even calling Jesse an idiot for thinking she forgot.

Jesse’s true reason for the writing of his novel was to see Celine once more. He still longs for the same blissful moment with her. He cannot stand the thought of his marriage and the love there is pretty much out the door.

What is love, if it’s not respect, trust, admiration? And I felt all those things. So cut to the present tense: I feel like I’m running a small nursery with somebody I used to date.

– Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Before Sunset

The marriage that once glimmered with promise has no faded into nothing more than a job; a chore for him to do. Even in their more matured perspective they both want: one another. Now Celine, not to be outdone by Jesse, wrote a song about the night they share. She plays a song for Jesse called “A Waltz for The Night,” off Delpy’s own solo album.

It’s a wonderous recollection in song form as opposed to the countless pages of Jesse’s novel. The album version is also spectacular with Jon Brion production vibes. Delpy’s gorgeous sweet yet sultry voice in each line add to the sweetness. I admire that the actors get to show off some of their own personal skills in the film.

Yet, the film doesn’t end with this song. Celine dances and listens to Nina Simone’s “Just in Time” as she says “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.” Jesse replies “I know.” Once again, the abrupt end rolls in and the film is complete. The choice of “Just in Time” works as the two find each other once again with the possibility they may stay together.

On the directing front, Linklater knows how to manipulate time to his advantage in his films becoming a master of it. From Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Boyhood, Linklater is a cinematic time lord.

Before Sunset is a beautiful film showing how a moment in our lives can shape us forever. It shows how we can reconcile with those past emotions while building a stronger future. Though short in time, the trio of Delpy, Hawke and Linklater deliver by letting us back into the lives of Celine and Jesse.

Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 afternoon walks
The Before Trilogy: 2/3 Complete

Next week, we accel once more nine years into the future to see what becomes of Celine and Jesse’s lives to see if they lived happily ever after or have disconnected once more. To quote Abe Simpson, “A little from Column A, a little from Column B.” And this time, we have Before Midnight. Till the next sequence.

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