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Perfect Couple(t): Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

Last night, reviews of Richard Linklater’s new film Before Midnight were published – after the film’s first screening at the Sundance film festival. And suddenly, on reading nine positive reviews and one negative, this third film in the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset series becomes my most anticipated film of the year. And, given this series' release schedule, perhaps my most anticipated film of the decade?

If Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite for a fourth time, we won’t see Jesse and Celine again until 2022. Below are reproductions of reviews I wrote of the first two films in 2004.

In January 2004, I revisited Before Sunrise for the first time since knowing there was a sequel in the works – nine years after Sunrise was first released in 1995. In September 2004, I wrote two reviews of Before Sunset: the first, a single word; the second, a lengthy discussion. Some thoughts on the upcoming Before Midnight at the end.

 REVIEW: BEFORE SUNRISE (1995), January 2004

 From my review of Lost in Translation:

 I like small movie melodramas that focus on gestures and quiet times which develop slowly and thoughtfully. Better are ones with the sense to know that comedy is a legitimate device to lift them up out of the depths of gravitas and, sometimes, pretentiousness. The ones directed with a sure hand and filled with flawless performances are greater still. And, thus, rare. Lost in Translation is all of that, perfectly executed.

 Before Sunrise is Lost in Translation’s verbose younger brother. It’s untethered by marriage or commitment or grand personal drama. It’s free to quote, philosophize, wax lyrical and spin shit. But it is directed with a sure hand and does, at its centre, contain flawless performances.

 Richard Linklater loves dialogue. And chance meetings. A young people. And philosophy. And relishing life and love. It comes through all his movies – Slackers, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Tape, Waking Life, School of Rock. But Before Sunrise (which unfortunately acronyms to BS) is all that in concentrated form.

 Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train, they chat and get to know each other and these awkward first moments are probably the least enjoyable parts of the film. I’m not sure whether it perfectly captures a real-life moment when an articulate guy meet a gorgeous woman or if Linklater and his co-screenwriter are just trying too hard.

 Once the characters alight in Vienna, though, the ebb and flow works perfectly. They are both articulate and gorgeous. They are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, one that neither of them knows very well or at all. (Maybe, like me, they recognise the Ferris Wheel the first kiss on as the one from The Third Man and The Living Daylights.)

 Lost in Translation offers two characters who are lost – in Japan, in themselves and in the world at large. But the fact that Before Sunrise’s two characters impulsively jump off the train together and wander around the city all night just talking reminds us that they are young and aren’t yet under any pressure not to do this kind of thing. It makes the film a really honest look at the passion of youth. 

Occasionally the characters say something that they mean to be profound but come off as silly. But this is the way these things work. They want to impress each other. They are youthful and exuberant and not everything that crosses their mind is fully-formed or even barely thought-out. While everything in Lost in Translation is considered and deliberate, Before Sunrise is off-the-cuff and surprising.

 And ninety-five minutes breezes past in a way that an all-dialogue movie might not do in other hands. There are only two characters in the film who only very occasionally converse or react to other people. And yet they are complex enough – at least in what they say – that they are always interesting to listen to.

 The film is almost ten years old now. I believe it first premiered in Venice in late 1994 and was released in the U.S. in 1995. Is this to suggest that thoughtful, articulate, romantic comedies are only once-in-a-decade event? Perhaps.

 And yet Linklater has recently done what I had once thought unthinkable – he’s made a sequel. Set 10 years after their night in Vienna, the characters bump into each other in Paris where Ethan Hawke’s Jesse is on a publicity tour for his novel. Very advanced sneak previews lean decidedly to it being a good sequel, but perhaps not great. I shall console myself with the thought that even if this follow-up, gracefully titled If Not Now, is imperfect and not as good as the original, perhaps that too is a comment on youthful love – it’s never as perfect as you remember it. It can never quite capture the first time.

 Before Sunrise is shamelessly romantic. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry.

 REVIEW #1: BEFORE SUNSET (2004), September 2004


REVIEW #2: BEFORE SUNSET (2004), September 2004

 Before Sunset is the third film in the past twelve months that really moved me – shook me on an emotional level. It is almost impossible to fathom that this film, a sequel to the superb 1994 feature Before Sunrise, eclipses both Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with its insights into love and romance.

 For me, as I said in my first review, this film is perfection. The two stories we have of Jesse and Celine form a wonderful couplet – just as the characters do as well.

 When I first heard that director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had reunited to make this sequel, I blanched. Not only do I have fond memories of Before Sunrise and an equivalent period in my life, but I think the film holds up brilliantly. This film’s working title was If Not Now – a stronger and more literate title than the more obvious Before Sunset, which seems designed purely for marketing purposes.

 If Not Now intrigued me and scared me. Was Linklater reacting against his turning mainstream with School of Rock? Were he and his actor’s mining one of their most beloved works for an inferior project? The sheer romanticism and ambiguous ending of the original film practically begs that we never know what happened next…

 This from someone who really only sat through Linklater’s interminable Waking Life solely for the Jesse and Celine scene – direct from Linklater’s fevered imagination and not part of their ongoing story. But perhaps a part of their own dreams?

 But word of If Not Now fell upon me just as the film was being shown in Berlin – Linklater nominated for a Best Director Award. Advanced word on the film was good. I even braved a potentially spoiler-filled review at Aint-It-Cool-News to read an early report… thankfully there was one article that was adept at keeping the film’s secrets, while tantalising a fan of the original.

 Critical acclaim has almost been universal. So in recent weeks, between its wide release in the United States two months ago and its arrival in Australia last week, I was becalmed. I wasn’t anxious to know if it worked as a film, if it upset the original, if it got the films wrong. All I waited to see was how I’d react to this sequel that I never dreamed I would ever see – and never really wanted to.

 The actors, the director and the characters have aged nine years – and the films perfectly compliment each other. This is not just an extension of the first film, it is a re-examination of it. With two points of reference in Jesse and Celine’s life we are now able to understand these characters better – both as they are now and what they were then.

 Much of the original film is filled with the enthusiasm of youth – and much of the time the two characters are trying to impress each other. Jesse is clearly concious about not living up to the cliché of the ugly American abroad and Celine tries, with less success, to circumvent the idea that all French women are neurotic and high maintenance. We forgive them their indulgences – of all kinds – because they are being as romantic as we were (when I first saw the film) or wish we had been (when I watch it now).

 Before Sunset illuminates parts of the first film – not just in direct reminiscences and references, but in oblique turns of phrase and the way parts of them are very much the same now as they ever were, despite the nine years of wear and tear on their bodies and souls. This is why I refer to the films as a perfect couplet – they are two halves that exist on their own but transcend the medium when considered together.

 It is difficult to talk about the film in detail without ruining the surprises along the way. For as the first film was about the anticipation of first meeting, coupled with a sense of desperation that it would soon be over, this is merely another hour in their lives – in which you must experience it as they experience it. Perhaps with Before Sunrise fresh in your mind or maybe with just the hint of recollection – see how well you remember nine years ago and match yourself with this couple and their differing memories of that night in Vienna.

 Parts of this film made me immensely sad – youth and passion and romance are fleeting. The world moves on – and not just for these two characters. Jesse and Celine have found more distinct places in the world now, reacting to and against the current political and social climate of a Western World that works differently than it did nine years ago. It makes me remember the early 90s fondly, like a baby boomer remembers the 50s.

 Parts of this film made me joyous – serendipity is often overused in romantic comedies and dramas to make fate seem divine. Before Sunset puts the idea in perspective – there are times when coincidence does figure in our lives, but just as often the way we act determines an outcome. Did Jesse really write his book about that night in Vienna in an attempt to find Celine?

 Parts of this film I still have difficulty talking about. The real-time scenario, the perfect but realistic dialogue, the passions, beliefs and ideals of these characters were so easily identified with. Twice I took a sharp, deep breath in reaction to moments in the film – one as Jesse first sets eyes on Celine for the time in Paris and once more when I knew this brief encounter was over for maybe another nine years…

 Richard Linklater has hinted that he will revisit Jesse and Celine again in the future. In essence, even the idea tempts fate. But maybe that would be right – as it is what Jesse and Celine have always done.


 Just as Sunset tempted fate, trying to fashion a sequel to a film with Sunrise’s beautifully ambiguous, romantic ending, Midnight must follow a more complex and complicated conclusion. Some of the early reviews give details about where Jesse and Celine are at in their lives now, but I leave it to your discretion to find those reviews and read them. As always, the Hollywood Reporter says a bit too much. And it’s The Guardian’s review that is the sole negative voice, so far.

 After Sunset, I knew a third film in this series was inevitable. What little I know about the third film makes it sound like Hawke, Delpy and Linklater have found another evening in Jesse and Celine’s lives where it’s time they take stock, talk about themselves and the world and how they fit.

 It’s one thing to be excited for the new Iron Man film, a year after The Avengers. It’s another to be thrilled to return to JJ Abrams Star Trek universe after four years.

 But to meet this couple again, this time in Greece, nine years after we’ve last seen them and eighteen years after they first met and we first met them, is both thrilling and scary. What if they aren’t the same as when we last saw them? What if we don’t like the people they’ve become? What if meeting them one more time is not so much a mistake, but a disappointment?

 But what if, yet again, it’s perfection? And if not... can’t we forgive, after all these years, a perfect couple(t)’s little faults?

 Before Midnight will be released everywhere some time this year.


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