There is a point in Before Sunset when Julie Delpy says something about a lack of belief in any magic being tantamount to death. At first I mentally recoiled at what seemed like the latest in a long line of moments of preachiness regarding everything from anti-American sensibility to fatalistic environmentalism in Richard Linklater’s 2004 film. I believe in no magic, I said to myself, and I am as alive — I feel — as can be. Then I remembered love.
Love is not something a wise man or woman sets out to put on film unless s/he is an experienced professional. Famous Alex Jones enabler Linklater is, in frankness, not necessarily my idea of experienced professional anything. But his duo of romantic dramas Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (plotline: boy meets girl on train, boy and girl walk around Vienna and fall in love but will probably never see one another again) represent the very rare modern examination of psychological (almost entirely verbal) love, held up and observed in the most minimalistic fashion imaginable, as nothing at all beyond two people connecting and, well, enjoying one another. All they do is talk… and eventually kiss and make love, though the act is not shown. There is ample strength in the idea, but it’s a radical and perhaps even wrongheaded idea for the movies: Linklater relies so little on his visuals that there are times when the story feels as if it should be listened to and not seen, like a radio play or a narrative record. Indeed, much could be learned from the film by simply listening, not even looking at the screen, studying the hidden meanings of words, the mannerisms, the patterns of speech, the small linguistic subtleties; the combination of script and what appears to be improvisation is inordinately complex for a feature film, U.S.-made or not. Vienna and Paris do look beautiful, but otherwise these are not strong examples of film as visual medium.
With that said, the two films command considerable attention because, in their time period, they are fairly unique and quite bold. Beyond the outlandishness of its structure and conceit, Before Sunrise is something of a throwback to the feverish romances of the 1930s and 1940s, like those fleeting-whirlwild narratives of Tay Garnett. There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the lack of direct sexuality, the arbitrary limitation of time (we must love one another quickly before I go back to war, fight with Tybalt, etc.), the sweeping and nearly insane scope of it all: the lonely boy who’s just been dumped traveling by train through Europe and getting caught up in his own version of Brief Encounter in Vienna. In a few ways, the film reveals the greatness of its ancestors, even the mediocre ones like Wuthering Heights and Intermezzo, but much more so glorious expressions of doomed devotion like Notorious and Portrait of Jennie; those films involved the audiences in more intricate and less obvious ways, paralyzing the viewer with setting and visual sensuality and sheer beauty and often the stab-in-the-heart tearjerker conclusion.
In other ways, though, Before Sunrise lays out the limitations of the classic romantic films of the Hollywood era and pops their bubble; its focus on humanity is stronger, its sense of the rationality and logic of love, however little there is, is much more sympathetic and clearly defined. And it’s far less manipulative, and in the end more convincingly romantic and sad than any of the above except the Hitchcock film. (Hitchcock once casually proposed a film similar to what Before Sunset became, except the couple being followed around would be very poor and homeless and already married.) I wouldn’t say that I felt any more involved in Sunrise than I did in Portrait of Jennie, but I did feel much more like it was happening to people like me, in my own world instead of a hyper-stylized universe of black & white breathtaking landscapes shot through a gauze. The weepie mentality has perhaps never been more effective than it is at the ambiguous conclusion of Before Sunrise.
With romanticism, though, comes a certain kind of embellishment that spoils the image a bit, though it only adds to the immediacy. Linklater is obviously determined — almost arbitrarily — to avoid cliché, and his bitterness toward it is carried to a fault. For instance, the standard Paris landmarks are never shown in the second film in what feels like a defiant avoidance of familiarity, and the words “I love you” are never spoken, which is fine, but he doesn’t give Ethan Hawke enough money to get a hotel room or even some wine, which makes the night of sex a bit of cheat. They do it under the moonlight in the middle of a field in Austria after drinking red wine… and this is supposed to have some variety of an image of real life, to be the anti-Hollywood love story. It looks like fun, as does everything they end up doing, but come on. In retrospect, it shatters the hyperrealism more than slightly, like somebody snuck a scene from From Here to Eternity into a Mike Leigh film.
A movie like this is carried by the actors. Unfortunately, Hawke is merely adequate and sometimes overzealous in his part (though a bit of this may be projection on my part because he reminds me of someone I used to know and hated passionately). But Julie Delpy is a wonder. She is versatile, beautiful, expressive, believable (in the first film), everything that would properly sell Hawke’s sudden falling for her. I suppose I’m also projecting when I confess how easily I find it to trust the connection forged between the two of them, but I feel that most of us have had at some time or another these relationships that were instantly, bizarrely close with people we’ve only just met. It wasn’t necessarily romantic but it would still be kind of startling, and those on the outside might well believe they were seeing best pals who’d known each other their whole lives. As such, there is something stunningly beautiful about seeing it captured somehow, and in such a measured and felt way, Hawke’s hamming and grandstanding notwithstanding.
As a rule, I don’t like films that are this talky; I try my very best to make an exception when I see a film in which talking is the point, but I did cringe numerous times in Sunrise but especially Sunset when something was said that didn’t need to be. I also find it difficult to relate to, despite the many light moments, the generally very deep seriousness and collegiate insight of their conversations. Admittedly if I were writing this I would probably sink into the same trap, because I so dislike pop culture references that I would probably not want them to talk about their favorite books or songs or something, and I also hate characters directly stating their feelings in movies, so if I had to write something with just people talking, I guess I would throw in a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo as well. But Linklater’s infatuation with such “deep thoughts” has been troubling to me ever since I’ve had some passing knowledge of his work. A lot of what he sees as “depth” is, from my perspective, an illusion, and an unfortunate one to foist upon audiences.
What do the films have to compensate for this? Well, Before Sunrise does have its cinematic features. It uses its Vienna setting beautifully and has a crane shot or two, and feels genuinely hazy and drunken, like love. You could follow a scene like the one in which they pretend to call their best friends at the restaurant booth with any camera move and the whole thing would still seem drenched in a lively, hopping joy. Unfortunately, the even more widely acclaimed Before Sunset is a comedown in this regard, as well as a few others — though it does seem more trustworthy in its sad resignation as you get older and see more and more people around you getting trapped in sham relationships for shitty reasons. The joy is replaced with a certain Sunday hangover dread, the sorting out of affairs long over. It might be more truthful, but it isn’t nearly as fun.
Sunset is truly less a sequel than an epilogue; it runs only about eighty minutes, takes place in real time (!), and occurs nine years after Sunrise. The first film ends with the couple stating they will meet again in six months, followed by a slow fade to black. This sudden concession to pangs of love — after an agreement that they would not see each other again — is the most beautiful moment of either film, and I felt it startlingly, painfully real, especially Delpy’s tearful farewell. In Before Sunset, Hawke has written a book about the night in question and runs into Delpy at a book talk in Paris. They sort of pick up where they left off, but now both are in relationships and the moment in a sense has passed; they are in what they call “real time” (unrelated to the cinematic experiment of the same name). But it’s clear they have never gotten over one another.
In all honesty, I found Sunset a depressing film to watch immediately after the youthful optimism and unironic love of the original, though it’s commendable in its eye toward again avoiding the obvious. I can’t help feeling as if it would have functioned better as a five-minute sequence tacked on to the end of Before Sunrise, which is how Broadcast News — with its much more pessimistic conclusion — did it thirty years ago. Overall the emotions in this film are darker, the characters’ lives full of the turmoil of thirtysomething careerist syndrome. And the prospects of their relationship are worse than before; he’s tied down and in a bad marriage, she’s a philanthropic mess, and they have even less time than before. His plane leaves in a couple of hours.
But looking at Sunset as a screenwriting exercise, it’s sort of a masterpiece of personal, self-referential examination. It often feels like a review of the first film, or a response to all the criticisms it might have received: Delpy complains about the night of their lovemaking being embellished (as I did above), she points out that their time together is a ripoff of Brief Encounter, Hawke is shady in responding to questions about the autobiographical nature of the story, a reporter defines the appeal of the ambiguous ending and Hawke speaks directly of the person’s decision about whether the couple got back together or not being a mark of their own personality and sense of romance, and the whole story unfolds to end exactly the same: parallel to the other, just as ambiguous, really no further down the line but certainly frayed with hope.
Both Hawke’s and Delpy’s dialogue in the sequel is more forced, and pedantic at times, carrying the philosophy-major gen-X whining of the first to gargantuan strength with Hawke’s everyman caricaturing and Delpy’s angst about worldwide crises. Still, their words have a way of sticking. Delpy has a rant about commercialism in which she talks about living in a communist state for a few weeks and being completely away from any kind of advertising and mass communication, suddenly whittling everything down to just herself and her time. And I can sort of relate. I do feel usually like it’s just me in a small quiet universe, and I do feel much fresher and (generally) happier than I did surrouned by cable TV sensory overload as a kid. But then again, I’m also an adult, and Hawke points out correctly that getting older makes a difference.
Although Before Sunset makes obvious claims to being a revisit to a story for unabashed romantics, it did not strike me that way. The most moving portion of the film, in fact, was Hawke talking about his young son, and his sexless marriage free of joy and laughter being somehow worth the genuine suffering because of the little boy. It’s heartbreaking but unmistakably a believable destiny for someone who used to seem hopeful before all the priorities changed. The ending, however, is a real prize, in both films but especially the second: Nina Simone’s voice, a simple comment and that bit of missing laughter entering Hawke’s body, then a sudden fade and a director credit. It’s like the beautiful conclusion to someone’s dream, “out of nowhere, out of my thoughts.”
[Slightly altered version of an essay posted in 2007 after I initially saw the films. At the time there was no third film in the series; now there is, and I already reacted to it here.]