Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have a chance encounter on a train. An instant connection between the two, they both get off the train in Vienna and spend the night getting to know each other knowing that they must part company the following day.
Before Sunrise does sound a little generic but its strength is in its simplicity. Both Ethan and Jesse feel like real people upon whose world we happen to have stumbled upon. Sure, it’s a romantic film but it never feels gratuitous in its fromage; instead we just have two young people who genuinely seem to have a connection and are exploring that in the little time they have together. It’s a situation that is likely to ring true with many, which is another one of its real strengths. So many love stories, whilst undeniably soppy, aren’t all that realistic, whereas Before Sunrise feels like a genuine snapshot of these characters’ lives (it was based on a real encounter director Richard Linklater had with a woman he met in Philadelphia) and that we’re eavesdropping on the start of an actual relationship.
However, whilst the situation itself is one that feels real, some of the dialogue comes across as somewhat forced and a little unbelievable. Ethan quoting W.H. Auden, a street poet writing the world’s most pretentious piece of poetry, and conversations about reincarnation and spirituality just don’t feel in keeping with the film’s naturalistic approach. This isn’t always the case, but when it does happen, it’s a little jarring.
Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy carry their roles superbly and there’s real chemistry between the two, although it’s slightly mystifying as to why, when their encounter comes to an end, they can’t communicate via phone or mail at all. Maybe I missed that part. However, whether you’re a fan of romantic films or not, Before Sunrise is a film that almost everyone will be able to relate to in some way, which is something not many films manage to achieve.
Nine years after their night in Vienna, Jesse has written a book about the experience and is promoting it in a bookshop in Paris. When Celine turns up out of the blue, they spend the afternoon together catching up and reminiscing, but with Jesse married with children and Celine also in a relationship, they wonder what could have been.
It would have been easy to make this sequel based six months after Before Sunrise when the two arrange to meet. However, Before Sunset leaves that night in Vienna as an isolated incident, which helps to firmly distinguish the two films and give them a tone that is similar but very much their own.
Both Hawke and Delpy are on top form from the off once again, perfectly capturing the awkwardness that can arise having not seen someone for a long period of time and wondering what on Earth to talk about. They slowly slip back into familiarity and they become much more comfortable around one another once more. There is still real chemistry between the two and it’s clear that that one night had a huge impact on both their lives.
One of the few issues with Before Sunset is a similar issue that cropped up with the first film – the slightly pompous nature of some of the conversations. These two people who have not seen each other in nine years could be talking about their lives and what they’ve been doing, and there is a part of that, but instead there are philosophical and ethical discussions that just don’t feel all that natural. However, this problem is more prevalent in the first portion of the film and later conversations appear much more genuine and consequently carry more emotional weight. Celine’s near breakdown in the back of a car is a particular highlight.
Without the need for an initial meeting like the first film, Before Sunset trims a good chunk off its running time. However, this makes it a much more succinct package and more closely resembles time as it passes in the film. Before Sunrise could have easily existed on its own without the need for this sequel, but Before Sunset does a fine job of taking us back into these characters’ lives and letting us in on the next chapter in their story.