Before Sunset

By Henry K Miller

It’s impossible to know whether one needs to have seen before Sunrise (1995) in order fully to appreciate this, its sequel, but in any case both films are essential viewing.  Before Sunset is easily one of best – most moving, most thoughtful – American films of the year. In the first film, set in Vienna on 16 June (¡Joyce reference!) 1994, French student Celine (Julie Delpy) meets American backpacker Jesse (Ethan Hawke); they spend a night together, talking almost incessantly, before Jesse has to catch his train. They arrange to meet six months later. After a brief montage of deserted location shots from earlier in the film (which fans of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, 1962, will appreciate as a plot point in itself) – fin.

Nine years pass. The meeting never happened. Jesse has lost most of his gen-x fashion items.  He’s also written a novel about – what else? – missed connections, lost youth, and one night he spent in Vienna. He’s whoring it around Europe on a book tour, when, at a reading in the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Co (another Joyce reference), who should show up but...

From that moment on, Before Sunset follows without pause the next 70-odd minutes in the lives of Jesse and Celine as they walk and talk their way from the left bank to Celine’s flat somewhere on the way to CDG airport and the plane, bound for New York and an unhappy marriage, we’re left feeling (but not knowing) Jesse will never catch.

If the first film felt like ‘real time’, this, even more than Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), another Paris-set real-time classic, is the real deal. There isn’t a single ellipsis, unmatched cut or dissolve, in the whole film. But 80 minutes is, of course, mechanical time and while the film is, in a sense, crammed with suspense (of the will they/won’t they variety), it extends in duration – in Bergson’s sense, being time as we experience it – backwards and forwards over time, down paths not taken, and following that unknowable logic that structures all our conversations, but which the seeming necessities of plot have tended to exclude from cinema.

And although the film forms a strict temporal continuity after Jesse and Celine reunite, the film’s spatial unity is harder to vouch for: I’m fairly sure Linklater has gone in for some location-hopping, but not, as is usually the case, in order to maximize the number of identifiable landmarks – quite the opposite. Without much in the way of spatial orientation, and with the almost total absence of secondary characters, Before Sunset has a trippy feel that links it with Linklater’s more obviously dreamlike Waking Life (2001), in which Celine and Jesse made a brief cameo. And on cold reflection, what transpires could hardly take place in so short a period of time – emotionally or even, really, physically. Or could it? Hawke and Delpy could convince you of anything. Either way, Before Sunset presents much more than a slice of life.

Cold reflection, however, will be few people’s initial reaction to this film.  The Chinese communist leader Chou En Lai, when asked about his thoughts on the French revolution, famously answered that it was ‘a bit too soon to tell’. Julie Delpy has said much the same thing about the sexual revolution of the sixties; and it may not be too fanciful to see Sunrise and Sunset as interim reports on this revolution in the same way that Kieslowski’s trilogy was meant as a bicentennial update of the values of the tricolour. As such, the film is not easily viewed with detachment. Rohmer’s similarly talky films have been a reference point for many reviewers, but there’s an urgency about Before Sunset, derived from an intense appreciation of the passing of time (surely Linklater’s favourite theme, even in School of Rock), that makes it a more compelling film than any of the French director’s recent work. A modern classic.
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!