There’s a lot to like and admire in Before Sunrise (1995), but in retrospect it comes across as merely a prelude to this second film in the series, which returns to the same characters nine years later. Both Jesse and Céline have moved on in life, and meeting again in Paris, it feels like so much more is at stake for them. This has the effect of sharpening the feelings we are left with at the film’s close, which again like the first is very much ambiguous.
The film itself comments on this ambiguity, by having Jesse address the question at an author’s talk that starts the film (he has written a novel about the events of the first film, and is on a European book tour). In fact, at several stages the characters show an awareness of these very fictional structures within which they exist. However, this never comes across as unduly precious or pretentious, because the film’s focus remains sharply on this specific time and place, and on their conversation.
Stylistically, this is emphasised by constructing the film to take place in ‘real-time’. There’s a brief prologue showing empty locations anticipating the couple’s conversation (just as the first film ended with those empty locations where they had been, presumably a nod to Antonioni’s L’eclisse). However, from meeting at the bookshop by the Seine, via meandering walks around the streets and parks of Paris, followed by a boat ride and a car ride, there are no (obvious) ellipses. Most of the shots are Steadicam tracking shots following the two, so there’s an even clearer sense of geography in place — it feels as if you could go to Paris and reconstruct their walk yourself.
Best of all are the characters themselves, who remain true to those creations of nine years earlier (male and female parts as written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan respectively), but to whom now is added a depth of feeling that may be explained by the additional writing credits for Hawke and Delpy (themselves both now become creators: in real life, a writer and director respectively). Jesse’s overwhelming cynicism of the first film is far more muted, perhaps as a result of marriage and fatherhood, though he still harbours a great deal of regret. Céline meanwhile retains her morbidity and her neuroses, but seems to have done something more tangible with her career.
Cleaving so closely to every moment of the couple’s encounter heightens the attention paid to the actors and the way they marshal every expression and gesture. There are still moments when you want to cringe or flinch from some of the characters’ opinions, their gaucheness or misguided feelings — they still aren’t people I’d necessarily like in real life — but now the characters (and the actors) have sufficient maturity and experience to be able to deal with one another. It’s hard to properly explain, but it really does have a wondrous and transforming effect of the film as a whole. There are still those revealing quiet moments, such as when they ascend the stairs near the end, but there are also beautiful little matched gestures such as in the car ride when each tries to reach out to the other, only to withdraw at the last moment.
This leaves us with a final fade to black which, after more than an hour in the sole company of these two characters, feels artistically satisfying. Too many films fashion ambiguous endings in part because you feel the filmmakers don’t know what to do, or perhaps because they are trying to artificially stimulate interest beyond the confines of the narrative that haven’t been earned within the film, but here that open-endedness is just right. It returns the film and these characters, finally, to the viewer.
Next up: Almost ten years later, the team check in with these characters once again with Before Midnight, this time set in Greece.
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, 2 August 2004, at Curzon Soho, London, 29 August 2004 (and at home on DVD, Tuesday 18 June 2013).