TALK about a tease.
Nine years ago, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy first hooked up in filmmaker Richard Linklater's ever-so-romantic-yet-strangely-talky "Before Sunrise," a European-set love story in which Hawke, playing handsome American tourist Jesse, meets Delpy's beautiful French student Celine while on a train to Vienna. They fall for each other, hard, yet after only one night of passionate lovemaking (and strangely talky talk) they are forced to say goodbye, agreeing impulsively to meet again in Vienna in several months.
That reunion, as we're about to learn, never happened.
Flash forward to Paris 2004, where Linklater's "Before Sunset" checks in on the now successful and attractively crinkly novelist Jesse as he wraps up his European book tour, flacking a thinly veiled memoir of that long-ago one-night stand. Now, who do you think should walk into that gin joint -- er, I mean cozy Parisian bookstore -- than the ever-beautiful Celine, still horny after all these years?
Okay, we do not actually know that about her at this point. All we really know is that he wrote a book about their brief affair and that she shows up for the reading almost a decade later.
Maybe Jesse forgot his wallet way back in 1995, and Celine is just now getting around to returning it.
By all that is sacred in the universe of romantic fiction, something has definitively got to happen here -- or definitively not happen. It doesn't matter. All the audience wants is closure. You don't create this kind of buildup to a sequel and then not deliver.
Except that's exactly what Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Delpy and Hawke, does.
In "Sunset," the director proves himself to be the world's biggest coquette, getting his audience all worked up and breathless -- will they or won't they get back together, even though he's married and she has a steady boyfriend? -- only to cruelly disappoint.
That's right. I said cruelly disappoint. Personally, I haven't been losing any sleep these past nine years over the question of what ultimately happened to the lovebirds, but at the screening I attended, I sat near a couple of hundred people who apparently had. And when "Before Sunset" ended -- not with a bang, not with a whimper, not even with so much as a howdy-do or another "to be continued" -- that audience turned into something more like a lynch mob.
Frankly, I was ready to join them. After the audible groan died down and we all realized that, no, there would not be a 10-minute intermission, followed by the real ending, we all staggered out of the theater like a bunch of teenagers caught snogging on Lover's Lane by the local cop. All steamed up and no place to go.
Who's to blame? Linklater, surely, who must think he's being arty by again leaving his date in the lurch, but also Delpy and Hawke, who seem to have improvised their dialogue on the fly, based on the slapdash nature of their rambling discussion, which careers from the meaning of life to the meaning of love to the meaning of meaning itself. It goes nowhere, fast.
Unlike "Before Sunrise," however, which at least brought a little somethin'-somethin' to its sexed-up version of "The Charlie Rose Show," the incessant jawboning of "Before Sunset" is all foreplay and no climax.
BEFORE SUNSET (R, 80 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sex talk. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.