Debrief Encounter

Film still for Debrief Encounter

The two wide-eyed lovers from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise' meet again nine years later, older and wiser, in Before Sunset. But why do we want the realists to revert to romance, asks Nick James.

Towards the end of Before Sunrise (1995), as dawn comes to Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the twentysomething American traveller, realises that his magical tryst with Céline (Julie Delpy), the young French tourist he met the day before, is drawing to a close. "We're back in real time," he says, as the sound of a harpsichord playing Bach's Goldberg Variations drifts up from a basement apartment. It's the beginning of the end of enchantment. Céline has to catch her train, and when the lovers make their heartfelt, on-the-fly decision to meet again at the same place in six months' time, neither of them can be sure the promise will be kept. Céline, in particular, looks crushed as soon as she's out of Jesse's sight. It's one proof of the achievement of Before Sunrise that most people who see the film want to speculate afterwards on what happens next.

Apparently the film-makers felt the same way. According to the press notes for the new film Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater, Hawke and Delpy often talked about the fate of Jesse and Céline. Delpy says that, "Having this ending with them leaving each other felt like something was missing in our lives, in a weird way, some place missing inside of us." Now that remark may sound like the usual promo guff, but for me the resulting sequel makes Delpy seem sincere. Because Before Sunset, which brings the two characters back together after nine years, surpasses even its predecessor as a sophisticated and mature piece of what Linklater calls "romance for realists". The naturalistic dialogue this time was largely worked up by the actors themselves out of their regular speculations about the couple's future (whereas the original film was based on a co-written script by Linklater and Kim Krizan). What made the story feasible for the director, though, was the possibility of doing the whole film in real time. Which suggests that Linklater sees Before Sunset as a much more realistic take on the lives of these erstwhile, much-loved lovers.

But each of the films, in its own way, embodies a unique version of naturalism. Despite compacting 14 hours of wandering around Vienna from one afternoon until next morning into 101 minutes, the original Before Sunrise maintains a relaxed and baggy feel. In fact, the film needs all the charm of its two leads to moderate the sophomoric gaucheries that tend to aerate the dialogue in Linklater films. Yet if the discussions of reincarnation and musings on the nature of time are somewhat goshworthy, they do add a metaphysical dimension that gives resonance to the story's stress on seizing the moments that matter in life (just as, for me, the more blatant metaphysics of Linklater's 2001 Waking Life fails to). In the long night of Before Sunrise you also get a sense of Vienna as more than a backdrop, and there's plenty of time for encounters with oddballs – poets, theatre groups, fortune tellers and so on – to offset some of the essential cuteness of a young boy and girl getting to know one another by swapping philosophies.

In the real time of Before Sunset, however, we're meant to be eavesdropping on the lovers' unedited lives, with the two characters barely noticing anyone else or much of their surroundings (excepting a few key landmarks). Given that this time they're in the great romantic-cliché city of Paris, it's perhaps no bad thing to absorb the atmosphere in this understated way. Céline and Jesse concentrate instead on using self-justification to mask their bewilderment at not having ended up with one another. Because, as we discover, they didn't meet again six months later and have not been in touch in the intervening years. It was part of their pact not to exchange phone numbers or addresses, so as to make their potential reunion more of a romantic commitment. Once the reunion didn't happen, there was little chance of their coming together again.

Before Sunrise signalled how likely that sadder outcome was by ending with morning-after shots of the Vienna scenes Céline and Jesse had encountered, as if to say the city had lost them for good. Before Sunset reverses that strategy by opening with still shots of the locations the two will visit during their Paris walkabout: the bookshop Shakespeare & Co., Le Pure café, the garden walk and the riverboat that passes Notre Dame. These are certainly tourist haunts, but they're not lit like some sleeve-tugging magic-hour travelogue. In any case, Jesse is now more a cultural tourist than a vacational one. He's come to Paris as part of the book tour to launch his first novel This Time, which turns out to be a barely fictionalised account of his first encounter with Céline. Its theme muses on the importance of seizing the rare moments in life.

Right at the end of his Q&A session, just as he's confessing to the crowd that his novel is based on a true story, Jesse sees Céline standing at the side of the shop, and his excitement and discomfort are written all over him. Immediately we see flashbacks to the first film – shocking because they put the actors in such an unusually harsh comparison in terms of their stardom and vanity. There they are, nine years younger, then nine years older again, and the camera, in this realist mode, proves an exacting instrument. In the first film Delpy's face has a startling peach-bloom freshness, Hawke's new-moulded cheeks and puppy-dog eyes. Their more mature selves can no longer claim these attributes. Hawke's cheekbones have become shelves carved for Training Day, intensifying the guarded nature of his gaze, while his grin flashes ferocious-looking teeth; Delpy has slimmed to a much less dazzling but more fascinating mature self whose effervescence is the equal of her lived-in beauty.

Jesse is due to be driven to the airport by a hired driver. The bookshop manager reassures him that he has plenty of time to have a coffee before he goes. So Jesse takes the driver's cellphone number and steps outside with Céline. What follows is a high-risk matter for the film-makers. Linklater likes long takes and, by necessity, this talkathon is largely composed of walking two-shots. There are no flashy camera moves to excite our interest if the interplay flags. Thinking of other films in which the camera glides elegantly to keep two great performers in view mostly brings up examples of contrary circumstances. Take the way the wisecracking between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is choreographed to be framed in His Girl Friday (1939), for instance. In Howard Hawks' film the actors have the poise of vaudeville gymnasts reciting a brilliantly scripted routine that has been blocked out on set for maximum theatrical impact, and the camera hems their moves like a discreet servant. Capturing the Paris walkabout of Delpy and Hawke is a more blatant matter of a steadicam backing away from them, with the occasional long shot catching them traversing an angled space (of course, there are headshots and close-ups too).

There's a much stronger feeling that the actors are free to go anywhere, which puts extra pressure on them to provide a sense of direction. Delpy and Hawke must maintain a more simmering level of quotidian drama, constructed of long anecdotes designed to explain the inexplicable passing of nine years. It's the kind of pure cinema the likes of Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette have constantly striven for, and which Delpy, Hawke and Linklater and his team have achieved to a fine degree. (Rivette's 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating is a key inspiration for both films.) They seem to have managed it simply by keeping Delpy and Hawke in sympathetic view while the actors give a discreet masterclass in behaving exactly like two people rediscovering each other. There's no doubting the truth and strength of these performances.

The conversation begins with the gentle teasing out of recriminations over the failed rendezvous. Jesse says he didn't show, and Céline admits she didn't either, but when she explains that the beloved Hungarian grandmother she was on her way to see died and that her funeral was on the same day as their rendezvous, she realises from his expression that he was there in Vienna after all. This double embarrassment starts the emotional unravelling, and over the next hour or so we witness the two stagger from polite discourse to raw revelation in urgent stages as they both realise how punch-drunk with regret their re-encounter has made them. Jesse is mildly unhappily married and has a five-year-old son he adores; Céline, who works for environmental causes, is apathetically involved with a war reporter who's often not around and views herself as the kind of girl boys dump in order to marry someone else.

And so we find ourselves drawn deeply into a romance of the day. Before Sunset is an extraordinary film on many levels, but it has in common with such recent US movies as Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a taste for regretting some of the recent verities of the 20th century, not least the centrality of sex. To be romantic is now clearly to be coy – or at least discreet in some way – about fucking. One of the earliest arguments between Céline and Jesse in Paris is another double bluff about whether or not they had sex with each other in Vienna. The essence is that it doesn't matter. Romance is cool where sex is not. Being such an accurate naturalistic drama of romance, though, requires a negotiation with the adulterated language of relationships and its self-help-jargon concepts, the chief of these being the soulmate.

For what's at stake here is the cherished notion that we all have an ideal partner who, if met, would bring out only the best in us, and we'd return the favour. When I first saw Before Sunset it was in competition in Berlin alongside Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss, which considers a similar notion from the point of view of an Irish girl and a Muslim boy. The girl wants the boy to renege on his arranged marriage and move in with her, but the consequences are far reaching: such a course of action would lead to the boy's sister's desired arranged marriage also being broken off and to his family losing their status within their community, but still the girl insists. I couldn't help feeling that if she really loved him she'd let him go, and not cause so much selfish destruction and misery for his family in what seems like a near-libertarian film from the socialist Loach.

Yet I felt less burdened by the responsibility of caring about Jesse's wife and son. They're far away, and the culture in which Jesse's marriage exists is one of easily broken contracts, however much pain they may cause. Furthermore, the milieu is one of globalisation. Jesse has a man with a car at his beck and call via his cellphone. He may be far from home in the place where Americans have often 'found themselves' as artists and lovers, but he has a flight booked and the ready excuses of the returning male. The question is whether, like Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation, he'll choose to bask in the cherished memory of Céline at one remove, or find he can't go home again.

This makes it sound as if the choice is all Jesse's, but one of the great things about the two Before films is how scrupulously even handed they are, making it easy for the viewer to empathise with either character because each has an equal part to play. And if, in the end, Céline becomes a reluctant seductress, through Jesse's encouragement of her to perform her songs, and then to mimic Nina Simone (in a sequence which is perfectly just the right side of cute), this is only a consequence of her insight and sensitivity in the moment of his fascinated indecision. (Incidentally, I don't think Before Sunset is intended as a political love letter from liberal Americans to the French, but it does work very well as that.)

Recalling the Loach example, though, it is embarrassing to want to let Jesse off the moral hook should he decide, as the audience can't help but wish he will, to remain in Paris with Céline, since this reeks of a double standard which cultural differences cannot completely excuse. The seduction in Céline's apartment is therefore of ourselves as well as of Jesse. However significant it is to their inner lives, the affair, at this stage, remains a harmless holiday fling. As such it exudes a delicious naughtiness that's not available to the couple in the rigid social confines described by Loach. Curiously, though, this seems to make Linklater's film more real rather than less so. Perhaps that's because it takes more risks in its openness to question and its ability to walk a line on the edge of romantic kitsch which a more formulaic social-realist drama easily avoids.

Watching Before Sunset, you find yourself pondering such self-help enigmas as, why is it necessary to be far from home in order to 'find yourself'? Is the (more congenial) self you have found one you could maintain back home? What do you do if you encounter that significant other who perfectly complements your long-nurtured secret self? If, as the cliffhanger posits here, you miss the plane, are you just indulging in sexual tourism before the truth dawns? In other words, the viewer is soon enmeshed by the passion of the film in the junkified discourse of relationship theory.

This is why, when I started to think about Before Sunset, it seemed as if this wonderful film would prove impossible to pin down. How is it that such a me-generation concept has been realised in a way that feels so adult and satisfying? It's easy enough to describe the film's genesis as a project, but I couldn't unpick its complex achievement. Both the Before films seem deceptively simple; both deal with language and concepts usually considered corrupted beyond use. They talk of love, romance, relationships and idealism, abstract notions that are always difficult to respond to in concrete terms. If you're in the throes of a mutual fascination with somebody, if the apparently chemical processes known as 'being in love' or, more coolly, 'being infatuated with' someone are coursing through your system, then this film will offer the most straightforward catharsis. For the rest of us, it provides the joys of a transcendent work of art, an experience that lives will be poorer for missing.

And if it's not easy to write about soulmates and lovers and transcendent works of art without the lingo, then part of what makes Before Sunset so successful is its gentle, outgoing, optimistic toying with sentimentality, charm and kookiness. It knows these are dangerously soiled toys but it is unembarrassed to display them. It knows too that if Céline and Jesse's idyll is rejoined, it may make them more satisfied and complete, but the bubble of their mutual admiration will soon be vulnerable to the everyday.

Linklater has made a pair of films to match anyone's in terms of quality and feeling; Hawke and Delpy have proved themselves to be in the top rank of naturalistic actors. One hopes, though, that they are not tempted to make part three for at least another decade, and that in the meantime they can find other magically apt projects to stretch their abilities to this level.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012