Before Sunset (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is in Paris for the last stop of his book tour. As he is interviewed by reporters about his recently published novel and a possible plot for his next project, he notices Céline (Julie Delpy) standing a couple of feet to his right, the woman he met in the summer of ’94, the very person his book is based on. After the interview, Jesse approaches and invites his old friend for a cup of coffee. She happily accepts. In less than two hours, Jesse is due at the airport for his flight back to America.
Not one kiss is shared, not even a whiff of a sex scene, just a hug between a man and a woman who met in Vienna nine years ago and “Before Sunset” cements itself as a small but quintessential film about love, romance, friendship. It is appropriate that it is a more mature work than its predecessor, “Before Sunrise,” because its characters have grown a little older. Gone are their youthful verve and their willingness to impress but their yearning to find meaning in life remains.
Most immediately noticeable is Jesse and Céline dressing differently, less casual and more professional. They have jobs, they are in their own respective relationships, and they are no longer in school. It is easier for them to establish eye contact. Their hand gestures are more confident, used to draw someone in rather than to distract or to hide an insecurity. And yet without noticing how different the characters are compared to when they met as young, idealistic twenty-somethings, the film still works.
I should know. I saw “Before Sunset” for the first time without any knowledge of “Before Sunrise,” in high school, back when people still had to drive (or walk–as I did, rain or shine) to Blockbuster to rent movies and Wikipedia was not yet a common term. I was captivated. A movie that consists of two people holding a conversation for its entire duration was a novelty to me. No, I had not yet heard of “My Dinner with Andre” directed by Louis Malle.
The camera moves fluidly, matching the stream of consciousness nature of Céline and Jesse’s exchanges. They walk around Paris, giving the illusion that everything is happening of the moment, the background moving and changing with each step and corner they take. Most of the shots are from the waist up, a perfect middle-ground for capturing body language and facial expressions on an intimate level. They joke, they reminisce, they fight. There are times when the camera is placed from behind, welcoming a different place to be visited, a whole new arena for chatting about a multitude of topics.
The issues they talk about are bigger than themselves. While they have a tendency to philosophize at times, more emphasis is placed on different parts of the world, genuine problems like certain countries not having enough clean water for people to drink and a group of people looking for ways to transport pencils to a school a few miles away so children can get an education. They discuss Buddhism, marriage, as well as current and past relationships. They are full of contradictions and flaws which make them fascinating.
Some people think that the ending is sad because there is a suggestion that they may not end up together. To me, it is neither sad nor happy. It is… optimistic. The film ends with the two of them being in the same room, sharing something intimate and beautiful. Céline shares her apartment and talent in music. Meanwhile, Jesse is in complete captivation of her, the woman who got away. Just minutes prior, Jesse talks about his wife in the most generic way–“smart,” “a good mother.” We get the feeling that he does not look at his wife the way he looks at the French woman in front of him, dancing to a song by Nina Simone.