Before Sunset (15)

Wait till the magic hour
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The Independent Culture

It started as the briefest of brief encounters. Nine years ago, in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, a young American backpacker met a French student on a train, and the two decided to spend a few hours on a stopover in Vienna, talking, drinking and flirting. Before they parted, they arranged to meet up again, in the same city, in six months' time; partly because they've made a connection with each other and partly because that connection seemed so improbable in the first place. Did they just dream they got together?

It started as the briefest of brief encounters. Nine years ago, in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, a young American backpacker met a French student on a train, and the two decided to spend a few hours on a stopover in Vienna, talking, drinking and flirting. Before they parted, they arranged to meet up again, in the same city, in six months' time; partly because they've made a connection with each other and partly because that connection seemed so improbable in the first place. Did they just dream they got together?

Now, nine years later, Before Sunset proves it was no passing fancy. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is winding up an author tour at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris; he's been reading from his first novel, about a young man's one-night encounter with a French girl in Vienna. And who should turn up at the event but Celine (Julie Delpy), the girl herself. Jesse has an hour or so to kill before he has to catch his plane back home, so they agree to take a stroll and catch up with one other: finding out, for instance, what became of that little agreement to rendezvous in Vienna nine years ago.

One realises almost from the first moments of their awkward reintroduction that Linklater was right to bring Jesse and Celine back together. Aside from Robert Altman, no director in recent American cinema has made the stutter and flow of talk sound so spontaneous and engaging. Linklater was helped in this regard by the collaboration of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on the script, which nimbly hops back and forth through guardedness, curiosity, flirtation, soul-searching, accusation and regret. It has all the loquacious bravura of the first film, but now Linklater gives it headlong impetus by filming in real time: we are aware of the clock ticking down to the moment Jesse must leave to make his flight. It is one of very few movies in which talk actually becomes a matter of suspense.

The problem of time also makes it a more engrossing movie than its predecessor. Now in their early thirties, Jesse and Celine have accumulated some experience and, as it turns out, been rather burnt by it. "If we didn't suffer we wouldn't learn a thing," says Jesse, but the confession of details is tantalisingly postponed while they trade airy chat about jobs and travel and "world issues". While he's become a writer, she's done a Masters and become a health-aid worker.

Early on, Linklater flashes back to their previous selves in Before Sunrise and we are reminded how they've changed physically. Hawke, his hair and beard cropped, looks gaunter and sadder. His youthful buoyancy persists, but patchily, and we believe him when he admits to being "always dissatisfied". Delpy looks closer to what she once was: dreamy, open-faced, with a melancholy self-absorption tainting the bloom. Celine is possibly one of very few to have holidayed in Warsaw and experienced a "natural high".

As they wander from café to park and then up the Seine on a bateau mouche, the city seems to come alive and conspire in their gathering intimacy. It's hard not to sound romantically wistful in the soft, dappled light of a Parisian afternoon, and, having conspicuously avoided the subject, they at last share the truth of their present attachments. Celine's photojournalist boyfriend is often away working, but that's not the point: she feels haunted by the individual nature of every relationship she's had, and that includes their night in Vienna. Jesse's situation is even sorrier: he met his wife at college, and they settled down and had a kid - "I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date." He's having marriage counselling and not much sex, a misery-go-round brightened only by his five-year-old boy. As he opens up to Celine, the poignancy of their lost moment hangs in the air between them.

This talk of disaffection and missed chances would seem to imply that Before Sunset is a gloomy affair, but it's not. For one thing, Linklater's long, fluid takes lend a vitality we're not used to in movies; there's a genuine thrill in imagining ourselves privy to the secrets of these two strangers who are hopefully reaching out to one another. For another, the performances of Delpy and Hawke are mesmerising, even though their relaxed, natural-sounding rapport is said to belie hours and hours of rehearsal and rewriting. Both actors play off one another beautifully, always alert to what the mood demands, sometimes teasing, sometimes sincere.

And they're funny with it. When Jesse laments the lack of erotic excitement in his life, Celine gently reproves him. "Would you have finished the book if you'd been having sex the whole time?" A pause. "I'd have welcomed the challenge," he says, ruefully.

There is hardly a false note in this lovesick pas de deux, and even when embarrassment appears to be unavoidable, the film suavely sidesteps it. Once Jesse learns that Celine writes songs, he pesters her to play one until, back at her apartment, she finally accedes and picks up her guitar. I feared a David Brent "Freelove Freeway" moment, but she plays a rather lovely waltz-song about - what else? - The One Who Got Away, and her girlish alto visibly moves him. So the dilemma is posed: does he get on that plane, or does he stay and make something of their rediscovered passion?

Yet even before this becomes an issue you may find yourself hoping it won't be the last time you accompany Jesse and Celine on an impromptu perambulation around a capital city. The sense of romantic possibility they first invoked was born of a time when they were young and foolish. Before Sunset offers the heart-warming proposition that we never lose the impulse to be young and foolish again.

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