Have you ever finished a movie feeling such immense affection for its characters you wondered what happened to them after the film ended, and hated that you'd never know? How rare it is to get the answer to that question in a worthy sequel. Before Sunset is that rare movie.
In the first film, Before Sunrise, in 1995 two early twenty-somethings, an American boy named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl named Celene (Julie Delpy) met on a train through Europe. After spending the day and night and into the next day walking and talking around Vienna, they were firmly in love, and as they parted at the train station promised to meet on that same spot, at 6 PM, exactly six months later. There the movie ended. As is pointed out in Before Sunset, different people react differently to the previous movie's ambiguous ending. Did the two young lovers make that appointment? Did they meet again, did they live happily ever after? Depending on your personality, some will say no, some yes, some can't decide.
In the sequel, Before Sunset, we learn the answer: they did not. It's nine years later, 2004, and Jesse has written a bestseller about that one night, that special girl he never saw again. Then, in Paris on the last stop of a whirlwind promotional tour, he looks up and there she is. Celene, the girl who got away. Thus the two embark on another walking, talking marathon, in a different year, through a different city. But this time the stakes are higher. In the first movie they had most of a day to fall in love; and they were young, they didn't really understand what they had. After all, if this one love slipped away, surely there would be another, just as good, along shortly. Now in their thirties, they both suspect the sort of love they felt comes, if you're extremely lucky, once in a lifetime. Now they have only hours before Jesse's plane leaves to take him back to the US. (Apparently in Before Sunset-land simply taking a later flight is not an option. So in that sense the "time limit," as in the first movie, is a bit artificial.) In that time they have to determine if fate dealt them a horrible misdeed, if they truly were robbed of their soulmate, if they're still in love, if they have a place in each others lives. And if this is true love, as rare as it is to find that in life, how much rarer to be given a second chance. Should they go for it or walk away, knowing there won't be a third chance?
This is not a simple question. Jesse is trapped in a loveless marriage but has a four-year old son he adores. Leaving his wife to be with Celene would also mean leaving his son. Celene's had a series of horrible relationships leaving her almost incapable of daring to believe she could ever be truly happy, ever believe in love again. This is a woman with more than a few emotional dings. (Or is it that Jesse's primary problem with his wife is that she's not Celene? Is Celene's problem with any other man that he's not Jesse?)
It's fascinating to note how from movie to movie the two characters' personalities have interchanged. In Before Sunrise, Jesse was the complete cynic, constantly questioning and popping Celene's starry-eyed, trusting worldview. Nine years later, the loss of each other has worked profound alterations in them both. Jesse's felt the lack of love in his life but it hasn't made him bitter, he's come to the conclusion the world just might be a pretty good place, he's much more ready to believe in true love. In the interim, Celene's become so afraid of being hurt in love she describes her current boyfriend's major positive trait as being that he's almost never there. The cynic has become the romantic and vice-versa.
I might as well mention the one thing I did not love about this movie. Early on, there's a scene in which Celene voices a long litany of ultra-liberal, anti-industry, anti-gun, anti-good ol' US of A sentiments, among them calling the US an "imperialist country" and saying the only reason to be proud of being an American is the sexual staying power of its men. (Okay, I kind of liked that part, but it's certainly not the ONLY reason to be proud.) The fact that the expression on Jesse's face during Celene's angry, hate-filled rant shows he finds her performance charming had me doubting both characters' sanity. That scene really left a bad taste in my mouth. It was going to take an absolutely killer movie from that point on - great acting, dialogue, direction - to win me back over to its side. Fortunately, as my 5 star rating for the film shows, Before Sunset has all that stuff. By the end of the movie, I was just loving it, caring about Jesse and, yes, Celene as well.
The idea for a sequel to Before Sunrise was hatched in the minds of director Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (all of whom contributed to the sequel's script) before the first movie was even complete. Because they wondered the same things as other people: did Jesse and Celene ever meet again? Did they live happily ever after? In Before Sunset, the question is: how to end the movie? Shall we make a statement about the possibility of finding true love, or the nobility of self-sacrifice and facing up to reality at all costs? Romantic or realist? You can make a serious case for both. Some people find the ending of Before Sunset, like the ending of Before Sunrise, ambiguous. I don't. The answer is clear to me. After the final fade-out, I whispered to myself: "Perfect. Just....perfect."