In a way, the odds of a magical movie sequel are as distant as a happy reunion with a long-lost lover. Age and growth conspire against recapturing what was lost. Quirks that once endeared become forced; the easy rhythms of a beautiful relationship now strain to be revealed.
All of which makes Before Sunset a minor miracle. It is not only that one-in-a-million exception, it's that rare rekindling that demands nothing, never feels desperate, and (more incredibly) improves and deepens that initial spark of amour.
Indeed, you needn't even see Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater's elegiac 1995 waltz of a romance, to enjoy Before Sunset; in fact, I recommend against it. What's to know about Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), what was important about their one-night fling in Vienna back in 1995, is floated to us through fleeting, silent snippets of footage that feel as heartbreaking and short as the memory of that night must feel to its lovers.
Linklater's great subject is time - the poetry of moments coming and going too fast to hold. (And in that, he's the American answer to France's Eric Rohmer and Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai.) The Austin-born filmmaker, one of our very best (and least celebrated), tends to set his movies (like Slacker and Dazed and Confused) across a single day; there are exceptions (like School of Rock). Before Sunset gives time itself drama. It takes exactly 81 minutes to tell an 81-minute story, which only sounds like a gimmick. Jesse has to catch a plane. But the larger tension is that these former lovers are beginning to recognize the natural deadline of age.
Before Sunset gives us the same characters, the same actors, nine years after they met, and we're asked to acknowledge that they're beginning to fray. But with age comes personality; they're more formed now. Celine and Jesse meeting again gives them a chance to measure what their current lives are against what they thought would happen to them when they were in their early 20s. Before Sunrise, which itself has grown beloved with time, chronicled the chance encounter on a train moving through Eastern Europe and the 12-hour romance that followed: Jesse chatted up Celine and on a whim they got off in Vienna and spent the night wandering and talking, and finally, making love. That film captured the rush of meeting someone whose mindset perfectly complements your own.
It also left their story dangling. They agreed to meet six months later. But they forgot to exchange phone numbers or addresses. And admirers of the first film have always played a parlor game of what might have happened.
Before Sunset finds Jesse on a book tour. At a reading in Paris he looks up and locks eyes with Celine, who still lives in her hometown. They leave and walk the streets, stroll along the Seine, stop at cafes, and just talk about the compromise, about the gap between their best selves and their actual selves. Celine is an environmental lobbyist. Jesse has kids. He says feels like he's "running a small nursery with some woman I used to date." What they say is insightful and charming and fun to hear; Hawke and Delpy wrote their own dialogue and start a fire from the embers of old chemistry. The greater accomplishment is how offhand it all feels, how invisible the acting and Linklater's direction becomes.
The first film ended with snapshots of the places they'd been; the new opens with the spots they'll be. Hawke finally drops his poseur persona; Delpy is lovely and breaks your heart when she puts everything on the table. We expect them to eventually deal with the issues before them. They do, and it's worth the wait. Linklater stages their moment of regret and yearning on a tourist boat; the light seems to brighten and the breeze seems to freshen. But there's no turning back these waters.
Before Sunset is one of the year's best pictures; actually, at this point, I haven't seen anything more glorious all year. The ending alone, as luminous an ending as has ever been filmed, arrives exactly when you'd hope it would, but you don't really expect it to. Balls are in the air. We've waited a long time to find out what happens. We do, but only in a sense. Linklater leaves a gasp in your mouth and flutter in your heart.
That's what happens.