Like many intelligent women of advanced political beliefs, Celine detests the ideology of the soulmate. She says as much, with torso-twisting vehemence, about three-quarters of the way through Before Sunset, shouting the word “evil” at the notion of there being one right person for her. Although she is, by all conventional standards, a strikingly beautiful woman and still young, you can see weariness in her face as she rails about the wasted years, when she either pursued the phantom of true romance or else felt dead because she’d abandoned the chase.
Like many intelligent, advanced women, Celine also has learned that the heart has its reasons. Despite the justice of her tirade, despite the genuine outrage behind it, she makes her speech in the back seat of a luxury car, driving through a shimmering Paris afternoon with a man who gives her exactly the right response, always, and has the looks of an endearingly scruffy dream.
Were this scene to happen in another American movie, you might grouse about Hollywood’s need to have things both ways. Hollywood, though, played almost no role in making Before Sunset, which comes from the deeply independent soul of Richard Linklater; and nobody here is being had. Linklater wants to increase your enjoyment of human complexity, not simplify it out of existence. If he makes Celine’s emotions work in two directions at once, it’s because he knows people are like that.
He also knows what people are like when they gather in an audience: They demand honesty and substance but also want their wishes fulfilled, and will give a filmmaker just ninety minutes to do it. Gifted enough to oblige, and happy to do so, Linklater satisfies on all counts. He draws you into an intense, richly textured interchange between two wholly credible characters–that’s the explicit side of Before Sunset–and at the same time, implicitly, conducts a formal experiment, in which he reveals the requirements of a good movie by systematically ticking them off.
I could watch this picture twice a day for the rest of the summer.
But before I rave on, let me explain the premise of Before Sunset for those who have not yet been introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy) and her possible soulmate Jesse (Ethan Hawke). When moviegoers last saw these characters, at the end of Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, they were saying goodbye at the train station in Vienna, having met just a day earlier, and were sharing one of the most convincingly passionate kisses in film history. From a chance encounter on a westbound train–she, a French girl, was on her way home from Budapest, and he, the American boy, was bumming around–they had gone together impulsively into the city, to wander through the late afternoon and evening, to talk about everything beneath the sun and moon and to share the Taj Mahal of one-night stands. Why Taj Mahal? Because for all the magnificence of the encounter, Celine, at age 23, had a head full of gravestones, and Jesse, equally young, believed that every good experience will wither and be lost. Rather than expose themselves to routine and disappointment, the two chose not to exchange telephone numbers or even last names but pledged to meet on the same platform in a year’s time. No! Make that six months!
The rendezvous, we now learn, did not take place. But nine years later, in Paris, Celine and Jesse happen to meet again–and so we have Before Sunset.