Until I saw Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's prickly, enchanting new film, I had forgotten all about June 16, 1994. I still have no memory of what I was doing on that date, but I was glad to be reminded that Jesse and Celine, a hyper-articulate young American traveler and an equally verbal French student, spent the night wandering through the streets of Vienna, chattering their way through one of the more charming and exasperating screen romances of the decade.
They concluded their tryst with the promise to meet again six months later, and when Before Sunrise, Linklater's chronicle of Jesse and Celine's long one-night stand came out, in 1995, many a couple left the theater wondering whether that next meeting took place.
Nine years later -- the summer of 2003 in their time, right now in ours -- those arguments will be settled, and some new ones will begin. Before Sunset reunites Jesse and Celine, still played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, in a bookstore in Paris. Jesse has written a novel about their affair -- a "tiny best seller," he modestly gloats -- and Paris is the last leg of his European publicity tour. Celine, who has read Jesse's book, arrives at the end of his reading and they spend the next hour or so catching up, recalling their earlier encounter and also, warily, reliving it. Hawke's face has lost the last traces of its pretty, pouty softness, and Delpy's chirpy good cheer has acquired an edge of weariness, but Jesse and Celine are still as charming, and still, to everyone but each other, as exasperating as ever.
"Time is a lie," Jesse declares, in response to a question from one of his readers. "It's all happening all the time." And Before Sunset, unfolding with deceptive languor in real time, at once supports this idea and undermines it. Erasing nearly a decade of longing and distraction, Jesse and Celine, a bit awkwardly, pick up where they left off, with a flurry of excited conversation briefly interrupted by flashbacks to their first meeting.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Jesse), Julie Delpy (Celine), Louise Lemoine Torres (Journalist), Albert Delpy (Philippe)
Running time: 80 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
But of course a lot has changed, and the film is full of subliminal reminders -- the flowing waters of the Seine, the shadows that lengthen in the golden Parisian light, the implacable movement of celluloid through the projector -- that time runs in one direction, and eventually runs out.
Jesse has to be at the airport to catch a plane home to New York at 7:30, and the 80 minutes of Before Sunset approach this deadline with anxious leisure. But time also exerts a graver, less literal pressure on the film. In the ensuing years, Celine and Jesse have lived through some of the frustrations and satisfactions of adulthood, which emerge as they wander from bookstore to cafe, through picturesque alleys and onto the deck of a tourist boat.
None of it is terribly remarkable -- professional success, parenthood, an unhappy marriage, a series of unsatisfying relationships -- which is the point: then as now, Jesse and Celine, for all their idiosyncrasies, are meant to be perfectly ordinary citizens of the affluent, entitled West. Their experiences have left them stranded in a familiar limbo between resignation and contentment.
The questions that have nagged at them for almost a decade and that give this modest, meandering movie an undercurrent of desperate suspense, are whether there is a chance for something more, and whether the chance was lost forever on that morning in Vienna. Were they meant to be together? And if they were, what does it mean that, until now, they have not been together?