Fair warning: five minutes into this film the critic checked out of my head and the fan took over. It may not be great art and it won’t work for everyone, but it kept me smiling all day.
Nine years ago, in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, two young people met on a train and impetuously agreed to spent a day together in Vienna. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American student on his last day in Europe, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student on her way back to Paris, talked as though they had known each other forever. Or maybe it is better to say that they talked as though they knew they would never see each other again — with complete openness.
In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong famously wrote of the fantasy “zipless” sexual encounter, an almost magical connection with no psychic, physical, or logistical clumsiness to impede it. Perhaps, though, the idea of a “zipless” emotional encounter is even more compelling. In Before Sunrise the talk is a sort of nonstop jazz improvization of such dizzying open-heartedness and intimacy that it is one of the most heart-wrenchingly romantic and truly sexy films ever made, at least for those who consider great talk the ultimate in exquisite seduction. When the stars and directors re-united to allow us to see the characters nine years later, it was like getting a chance to catch up with people we have genuinely missed and wondered about.
And so we have Before Sunset. Jesse has now written a book about what remains the most vivid encounter of his life, and he comes to Paris for a book-signing. Celine is there. And once again, he has a plane to catch and they have just a few hours to walk through a European city and talk and talk and talk.
And once again, it is pure pleasure to share that with them. There is still a powerful connection between Jesse and Celine and it still makes a powerful connection with the audience. It is not so much what they say. Though they talk about big issues — relationships, finding meaning in life, God, sex, regrets, romance vs. cynicism — their insights are not especially fresh or well-expressed. But Hawke and Delpy (who wrote the script with director Linklater) understand the rhythms of conversations between two people who use words less to enlighten than to draw each other closer, words for flirtation and seduction, rapturously romantic. Sometimes they use what they say to hide. Notice how often they say something teasing or slightly askew to get a laugh and to protect themselves from risking too much openness. But sometimes it is to reveal.
All of this unfolds in real time with a driver standing by to take Jesse to the airport, leaving them and us a bit breathless. Their journey as they walk through a garden, hop on a boat, and get into the back seat of the limo is a journey of the heart and spirit you will want to take with them.
Because they helped to develop and co-wrote the script, Hawke and Delpy inhabit the characters fully, with performances of great sensitivity and vulnerability. We are pulled toward them as they are pulled toward each other. They don’t have the buoyant optimism of their first meeting. They are both a bit more fragile, but that means they are more aware of the preciousness and importance of what they hope to find in each other.
If you are looking for action or plot twists or something with guns and explosions, ignore my recommendation. But if you would rather listen to good talk between people who make talk into an art, you will find much to delight and charm you.
Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references, including adultery, as well as drinking and smoking.
Families who see this movie should talk about what might have happened if Jesse and Celine had stayed together in Vienna. Would they have been ready for a relationship when they were younger? What do you think it is that draws them to each other? If Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy get together in another nine years for another film, what will it be about?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Before Sunrise and the brief scene featuring Jesse and Celine in Linklater’s animated film, Waking Life. They will also enjoy the classic French romances A Man and a Woman and And Now My Love. Linklater’s other films include Dazed and Confused and the hit comedy School of Rock. For a thoughtful discussion of this fascinating director, check out this website. The songs of the late Nina Simone are well worth a listen.