Nine years after Jesse and Celine spent a magical night together in Vienna, Before Sunset sees them reunite in Paris after their hastily-arranged plans to meet six months after their initial meeting never materialised. If Before Sunrise was a whirlwind testament to the beauty and spontaneity of love and attraction, Sunset is the bitter reminder that life often ends up getting in the way of the bright-eyed thrill of romantic endeavors. It is a film that manages to replicate all of the charm and warmth that emanated from its predecessor whilst also carrying with it a lingering sense of regret and wistfulness, acting as a bitterly poignant reminder that the buoyant optimism of youth often gives way to the more pragmatic realities in life.
One of the most impressive things about Sunrise was how engaging it was just to see two people conversing for 100 minutes, such was the quality of director Richard Linklater’s script and the authenticity of the performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In Sunset the approach is largely the same, although this time there’s even more of a focus on the two protagonists, with the Parisian streets little more than a pleasant background against which their long-awaited reunion occurs. At a much shorter 77 minutes, the film is little more than a lengthy conversation between these two people, yet the knowledge of their initial meeting and the slow discovery of everything that has happened since then makes it a truly enchanting viewing experience. They’re still the same same people, really, and the chemistry that sparked between them immediately returns, but nine years’ worth of differing life experiences adds a palpable layer of complexity to the nature of their relationship. They are older and wiser, although their respective lives have not worked out quite as they had planned, and the thought of what might have been weighs heavily.
Set in what feels like real-time, Sunset‘s bittersweet beauty comes from the same ingredients that made the first work so well – namely two wonderful performances and some fantastic dialogue between them – but there is a restlessness that continuously persists that was not apparent during Sunrise. It always felt that the pair would embrace and bid their goodbyes at the end of their night in Vienna, but during their journey through Paris it is difficult to stop wondering about how they’re going to approach this second inevitably farewell. Their initial goodbye did not satisfy either of them, and as it becomes clear that the spark between them remains and that both have found it difficult to move on from one another, there is a subtle tension that bubbles underneath the surface that makes this second instalment all-the-more engaging than the original. At this point the characters and their relationship has been so intricately realised that you can’t help but pine for them to drop everything and follow what their hearts are begging them, but deep down we know that the barriers between them are too great for that to happen. In the end, Linklater chooses an climax that is purposefully ambiguous in nature, and in truth it’s the best conclusion the film could have gotten, even if it’s not the one that everyone truly wants.
Before Sunset is the perfect sequel to Sunrise, juxtaposing beautifully the visceral connection between two people that appeals to so many hopeless romantics against the harsh and pragmatic realities of adult life. Most people will have once shared a special time with another that will forever stay with them, and the tangible aura of regret and contrition that clearly plays on the protagonists’ minds makes Before Sunset one of the most heart-wrenching romantic films ever put to screen. As much as the film teases at a passionate and emotional embrace that is undoubtedly fantasised about by both the characters and the audience invested in them, there ultimately is a recognition that life is a little more complicated than that, and this grounded and tender take on the role love has in the human experience is what makes Before Sunset such a wondrous success.