When "Before Sunrise" came out in 1995, it found modest success with young adults, for whom the endless conversation of the two lead characters may well have echoed their own breathlessly existential courtship rituals.
As Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wandered the streets of Vienna in the course of one night nine years ago, they shared views about nearly everything in life and, to paraphrase Lucinda Williams, there was something about what happened when they talked. Eschewing letters and phone calls as too conventional, they instead agreed to meet again in Vienna one year later. Fans of the movie were left to decide for themselves whether Jesse and Celine's attraction to each other was true love or simply a brief folie a deux.
With "Before Sunset," director Rick Linklater and his co-screenwriter, Kim Krizan, answer that question, revealing what happened in Vienna six months later and what has happened in Jesse's and Celine's lives in the years since. By 2004, Jesse has written his first novel. Visiting Paris on the last stop of his book tour, he has a few hours before his plane takes him back to New York when he spots Celine eavesdropping on his press conference at the legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Co. True to the spirit of their first encounter, they spend the rest of the afternoon walking the streets of Paris, talking about time, change, ambition, desire, religion, monogamy, memory and the betrayal of romantic ideals.
That "Before Sunset" is immersed in such heady stuff will not surprise Linklater's fans. With such early films as "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused," and more recently with the animated feature "Waking Life," the Austin-based director has become known for a discursive filmmaking style that favors words -- lots and lots of them -- over pictures. This isn't to say he ignores visuals: Working with longtime cinematographer Lee Daniel, Linklater keeps Jesse and Celine moving -- albeit with a defiantly deliberate pace -- against the scenic backdrop of Paris's cafes, parks and riverfront. Deploying the camera in a way that's intimate without being intrusive, the filmmakers give viewers the sense of walking along with the couple as they sort out what happened that first night in Vienna, and whether they were destined to be together.
The fact that Jesse and Celine are facing that destiny again -- in the form of a plane that Jesse may or may not catch -- gives "Before Sunset" what little narrative tension it has. Indeed, the viewers who were the biggest fans of "Before Sunrise" when it came out may now find their protagonists' self-indulgent chatter less a profound conversation between soul mates than the natterings of a couple of barely grown adolescents.
Still, "Before Sunset" has an easy, unforced air about it, mostly because of what seems to be a real rapport between the two lead actors. (Hawke's haggard visage gives particular credence to the idea that the once fresh-faced leading man has aged nearly a decade.) And for a movie whose stakes don't seem especially high, Linklater has crafted a legitimate whopper of an ending, if the reaction at one recent screening was any indication. In this jaded cinematic age, anything that inspires that many whoops, gasps and groans with only two actors and a few choice words has earned its place at the summertime box office trough.
Before Sunset (80 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row) is rated R for language and sexual references.