in Criterion Month, Review

Before Sunset (2004)

Every time I see the first installment of a solid superhero flick I think the same thing, “That was good but I bet the next one will be better.” That’s because the first installment of most superhero flicks are origin stories. We have to introduce the character, see how they get their powers, watch them learn to use their powers, you know the routine. But when the second installment rolls around, the heavy lifting is done. We know the character and what they’re capable of so we can focus on the meat. That’s how I feel about Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s 2004 sequel to the 1995 romantic drama Before Sunrise. Sunrise is a nice appetizer. Sunset is a meal.

In Sunrise, we have a lovelorn traveler in Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who sparks up an interest in Celine (Julie Delpy) while riding a train in Europe. They have an instant connection and spend the day in Vienna. At the end of the film they promise to meet up at the same spot in Vienna again in six months.

Sunrise is a delightful film but it requires a lot of the heavy lifting I mentioned. We have to introduce Jesse and Celine, learn their interests, passions, dreams… It’s all interesting and deftly handled, but in Sunset we already know the characters well. Meaning the conversation is less about themselves and more about the situation. The situation being, “If they were so in love, why didn’t they pursue it?”

When Jesse and Celine agreed to meet up again at the end of Sunrise, I believed them. I didn’t even consider it wouldn’t happen. But that is what happens. We learn Jesse went back but Celine couldn’t as life (as it so often does) got in the way. Thus, Sunset is a film about reflection. A kind of “What could have been” conversation which is a conversation I know we’ve all had in our heads one time or another.

In Sunset, Jesse is in Paris promoting his latest book based on his experience from the first film. He’s since had a son and been married and yet can’t shake the day he spent with Celine. Lucky for him, Celine is in attendance at one of his signings. The two spark up another one of their epic conversations with the knowledge that Jesse has to leave to catch a flight in an hour (before sunset). I didn’t realize until this film that the titles are accurate to the events of the film.

We learn that Jesse is a writer, that Celine is an environmental activist, so there is some catching up to do. But the bulk of the film is dealing with the awkward yet compelling issue of two people lamenting why they didn’t end up together. They don’t address the issue that bluntly but it’s obvious that’s how they feel. This dilemma packaged with the short amount of time they have to reflect together gives the film a sense of urgency. Gone is the aimless whimsy of Sunrise, Sunset is about getting down to brass tax.

The movie is a brisk 80 minutes which is perfect. It gives the characters enough time to vent and laugh and express themselves without any narrative fat. It’s a downer knowing the next installment is longer by more than twenty minutes. A brief runtime is perfect for a movie that’s more so about small moments than grand gestures.

What’s great about Sunset is you can enjoy it without even watching the first film. There’s enough context and chemistry to be engaged. No heavy lifting required. Maybe this movie isn’t exactly like a superhero movie but Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are heroes to me… That sounded a lot less lame in my head.