Like many intelligent women of advanced political beliefs, Celine detests the ideology of the soulmate. She says as much, with torso-twisting vehemence, about three-quarters of the way through Before Sunset, shouting the word "evil" at the notion of there being one right person for her. Although she is, by all conventional standards, a strikingly beautiful woman and still young, you can see weariness in her face as she rails about the wasted years, when she either pursued the phantom of true romance or felt dead because she had abandoned the chase.
Like many intelligent, advanced women, Celine also has learned that the heart has its reasons. Despite the justice of her tirade, despite the genuine outrage behind it, she makes her speech in the back seat of a luxury car, driving through a shimmering Paris afternoon with a man who gives her exactly the right response, always, and has the looks of an endearingly scruffy dream.
Were this scene to happen in another American movie, you might grouse about Hollywood's need to have things both ways. Hollywood, though, played almost no role in making Before Sunset, which comes from the deeply independent soul of Richard Linklater; and nobody here is being had. Linklater wants to increase your enjoyment of human complexity, not simplify it out of existence. If he makes Celine's emotions work in two directions at once, it's because he knows people are like that.
He also knows what people are like when they gather in an audience: They demand honesty and substance but also want their wishes fulfilled, and will give a filmmaker just ninety minutes to do it. Gifted enough to oblige, and happy to do so, Linklater satisfies on all counts. He draws you into an intense, richly textured interchange between two wholly credible characters – that's the explicit side of Before Sunset – and at the same time, implicitly, conducts a formal experiment, in which he reveals the requirements of a good movie by systematically ticking them off.
I could watch this picture twice a day for the rest of the summer. But before I rave on, let me explain the premise of Before Sunset for those who have not yet been introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy) and her possible soulmate Jesse (Ethan Hawke). When moviegoers last saw these characters, at the end of Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise, they were saying goodbye at the train station in Vienna, having met just a day earlier, and were sharing one of the most convincingly passionate kisses in film history. From a chance encounter on a westbound train – she, a French girl, was on her way home from Budapest, and he, the American boy, was bumming around – they had gone together impulsively into the city, to wander through the late afternoon and evening, to talk about everything beneath the sun and moon and to share the Taj Mahal of one-night stands. Why Taj Mahal? Because for all the magnificence of the encounter, Celine, at age 23, had a head full of gravestones, and Jesse, equally young, believed that every good experience will wither and be lost. Rather than expose themselves to routine and disappointment, the two chose not to exchange telephone numbers or even last names but pledged to meet on the same platform in a year's time. No! Make that six months!
The rendezvous, we now learn, did not take place. But nine years later, in Paris, Celine and Jesse happen to meet again – and so we have Before Sunset.
It is a retrospective film, obviously: a meditation on opportunities lost, fantasies recollected, alternative selves that did not appear. From the beginning, though, you may feel that the one-time lovers have grown more confident and hopeful, now that they're older. What's past is past; and yet time is more slippery than we usually think, as Jesse says near the start of the film, speaking with the philosophical air of a pothead (or a Proust). Time remains open to all sorts of possibilities – and that's what Linklater goes on to prove.
He does so by setting a deadline for the lovers, as he'd done in Before Sunrise. It seems that Jesse has a plane to catch and must leave for the airport in an hour and a half – as long as it takes for a feature film to unspool. The events that follow fill this cinematic slot precisely, because Before Sunset, unlike its predecessor, takes place in real time. In the earlier film, a cut or a fade to black made minutes or even hours disappear. In this picture, a stroll through the Left Bank that would take five minutes takes five minutes, and the ensuing ten-minute conversation in a cafe takes ten. As a whole, then, the action of Before Sunset represents "what can happen in a movie."
What happens? First of all, a movie draws us through space; and so the camera in Before Sunset is almost always traveling. It accompanies Celine and Jesse from the Shakespeare & Company bookstore to a cafe, then along a garden promenade between buildings and down to the Seine, where the two hop onto a sightseeing boat. ("It's for tourists," Celine cries, "it's embarrassing." Then she enjoys the view, as do the people in the audience.) After disembarkation, the couple continue their trip by chauffeured car. They drive to Celine's neighborhood, then walk through a courtyard, up the stairs, into her apartment. The time is up; the trip is done.
What else happens in a movie? We visit with attractive hybrids: characters who are both dramatic inventions and extensions of the actors' personalities. Here again, Before Sunset satisfies the requirement, since it would be hard to find more pleasant companions for ninety minutes than Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke). She has a little frown that gathers between her eyes, offsetting the loose and sunny aura of her hair, the broad conviviality of her lips. His hair might belong to a 5-year-old who just got up from a nap, and the mischievous smile pulls up one corner of his mouth; but along the cheeks run hollows that resemble twin dueling scars. These extraordinarily good-looking people are roughed-up enough to be interesting. What's more important, though, is that they interest each other. They can't stop confessing, teasing, commenting, contending, laughing abruptly in the middle of the conversation and talking on top of one another's words, so great is their desire to respond to one another. Where does the characters' interplay end and the actors' begin? It's impossible to say, since Delpy and Hawke collaborated with Linklater on the dialogue. All I know is that these lovers delight in the answer more than the statement; and their pleasure becomes the audience's.
A movie may also give pleasure by flattering the audience. It invites us to imagine ourselves as ordinary people, only a little better – which is why the "average" social class gains some luxe on the screen, the "normal" job gets more excitement and daily inconveniences (bills to pay, diapers to change) fade away. In this spirit, Before Sunset makes Jesse a bestselling novelist and gives Celine a meaningful job, with travel, at an environmental NGO. Money is not a pressing problem; domestic encumbrances remain out of sight. We're able to feel that Celine and Jesse are good people, and that we, too, are good, caring and intelligent for dreaming ourselves into their company. The trick here – an excellent one – is that the lovers know they're in a time bubble. When it pops and life's mess pours in, Celine and Jesse won't seem so admirable.
But will the bubble pop? A movie builds suspense; and as the minutes tick by in Before Sunset, the people on screen and in the audience alike wonder more and more intently if Jesse will catch that airplane.
I will say no more, except that time has rarely passed in a film with such apparent ease and spontaneity, yet with such rightness in every moment. Working with the very rudiments of movies, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have sustained a flawless performance – one that's warm, thoughtful, funny, sexy, charming and in all ways alive.
Make that three times a day.