Sunset, Before and After

I missed Before Sunrise a decade ago when it came out. It was one of those movies that I always meant to see, but every time a chance came to rent it or put it on the Netflix queue, it felt like its moment had passed—that listening to an hour and a half of a couple people in their early twenties Talk About Life was something I was too old for, even if one of them was Julie Delpy.

And I also missed Before Sunset, at least in the theater, but at least now I had a reason to see them both. (Super-brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen them: Sunrise is an American young man meeting a French young woman on the train in Vienna, convincing her to spend the day with him, walking and talking, falling in love, and agreeing to meet at the spot six months later. Sunset is them actually meeting, nine years later, each of them having gone on with their lives. What follows will contain spoilers, btw.) The opportunity to get an epilogue—to see both people nine years later, i.e. as old as I am now, and to see them one right after the other, was too good to pass up.

They’re both very fine films. The whole “two people just talking and talking” thing can be tricky to pull off, needless to say. But Linklater is relaxed about it, lets the conversations build to their natural climaxes but doesn’t try to force too much drama into them. Has ultra-picturesques backdrops, which doesn’t hurt. Before Sunrise had me looking at the clock a couple of times, I don’t know if that’s because the filmmaking wasn’t quite as mature, or whether the subject matter didn’t speak to me as directly. Certainly Ethan Hawke didn’t quite have the acting chops to pull off his role in the first one, though he’s great in Sunset, and Julie Delpy is perfect in both. What Sunrise has going for it is the core energy of a budding romance—not the kind of thing I’m usually drawn to in movies, but everybody’s susceptible to it if it’s done right, which it certainly is there.

I had a couple days between seeing Sunrise and Sunset, and I found myself thinking a lot about what was going to happen to the characters and what they were going to talk about. Jesse (Ethan Hawke’s character) has a line in Sunrise where he worries about settling down/getting married/having kids because the things he wants to do in life (not that he knows just what they are yet) will take all his attention and if he settles down he’ll look back one day and realize he never got the stuff done. I remember thinking such things too, and as someone who has unambiguously set foot on the “settling down” path, I was very curious to see what Linklater was going to do with that dilemma in the second movie.

And he dodges it, kind of, but in a way that works for the movie he wanted to make. Jesse is married, and has a kid, but it’s a loveless marriage, at least from his side. Celine is only loosely commited—thus, there’s room at the end for them to get together, although (thankfully) Linklater has the presence of mind to end his film at only the hint of it. And ultimately for Jesse it’s not that he didn’t have time to Do Those Things—he is, after all, on a book tour—but that he, like her, gave up on romance, if just unconsciously, after they didn’t meet again in six months, nine years ago. Which, if you can imagine that real people might have had just such a filmically perfect encounter as they had in the first movie, makes a certain amount of sense.

They do talk about more grown-up things, like the state of the world and spirituality and getting older. But none of that achieves any particular depth. I should be disappointed by the film more than I am, because it doesn’t wrestle with the sense of lost time, the disappointments, and the what-ifs that are an inevitable part of aging. What it does do is build in a subtle, steady way from their first uncomfortable attempts at conversation, on to the veneers they maintain as they dig deeper, and finally into the raw feelings they’ve both been harboring all along and the realization that neither of them have gotten over their long-ago moment. So it turns into another romance movie, not a post-romance movie. But their conversations are so fresh, their performances so convincing, their dialogue—which I have to believe is largely improvised by the actors—so natural and believable, that it works purely on the level of just enjoying them in their ambling conversation. Sunset turns out to be just a much more artfully constructed film in all respects, though I think you need to see Sunrise first in order to care enough about the characters to notice.

Anyway—both worth seeing, especially if, like me, you haven’t before.