“Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past”
The end of Before Sunrise contains a great sequence of moving snapshots epitomizing the film’s intrinsic romanticism. Every corner of Vienna that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) visited is reshown in their absence—seemingly ordinary locales now unforgettably resonate pieces of personal history. We see how their unique spot in the park hasn’t only gained an empty wine bottle and glasses but also the priceless memory of a young couple’s love. Whether or not these scenes portray this emotional imprint as fleeting in its physical erasure or infinite in the fact each moment was shared and could never be proved otherwise, it serves as an impactful conclusion to their first chapter together. It’s only fitting then that Before Sunset begins with the empty Parisian sites the reunited pair will soon inhabit.
The story picks up nine years later on the final stop of a European tour for Jesse’s debut novel depicting their fateful train ride and subsequent moonlit walk. Rendered almost speechless when spying Celine across the room, he can’t suppress the desire to talk despite having only an hour or two left before flying back to New York. Both desperate to learn what’s happened in the interim, it’s no secret they also wish to discover how much they’ve impacted the other’s life. Did their implausible night of pure, intimate joy help them on their journey towards the present? Did it perhaps ruin their chances for love due to the solitarily blissful evening’s inability to ever be matched? Or had they relegated the other into nothing more than a good story? What type of scar tissue remained?
Where the first film’s genesis came from director Richard Linklater‘s experience of spending an unexpected evening with a woman in Philadelphia, the sequel was born from the personal lives of the actors and their interpretations of the characters. Written off and on in the years between installments, Hawke and Delpy would send over monologues and passages of conversation for the other to answer and enhance while Linklater polished everything into a cohesive script. After a lack of funding resulted in numerous starts and stops, the final film may have actually been improved by its inevitable necessity for economy. Shot and edited to mimic real time, Before Sunset‘s naturalistic long takes following the duo’s exchange of evolved philosophies, new emotions, and unavoidable regrets reintroduces us to their lives as though we never left.
While Sunrise showed the innocence of our twenties and the dreams we conjure for the future, Sunset brings the cynicism wrought from sacrifices made that leads us into our thirties. Jesse and Celine were both blank canvases without concrete ideas for tomorrow, but now are caught amidst the decision-heavy stretch run of existence everyone hopes can be avoided. We all want to earn a career that lets us willingly wake up every morning to attend. We all want that beautiful, smart, and funny spouse to spend eternity alongside and raise a child. But romantic ideals of love and happiness are never quite what they seem and through the prism of life’s trials and tribulations may not exist at all. Sometimes memories of what could have been are all that’s able to keep us warm at night.
So we catch the juxtaposition of Hawke’s and Delpy’s slightly aged and thinned faces with the genuinely bright smiles we remember from almost a decade ago. The former helps explain how emotionally arduous time has been while the latter exposes their infatuation. They were the other’s quintessential love—an impossible combination of perfection we’re taught only exists in fairy tale—and the person to which every subsequent partner has been compared. One is now married with a child while the other is engaged in a serious relationship, yet their reunion makes it appear like none of that matters. This closeness and connection made them throw caution to the wind in 1995 and is what they wished to rekindle six months later. Just because it didn’t work out as planned doesn’t mean it wasn’t meant to be.
As the two walk around Paris to ultimately end up at Celine’s home, we see how they’re mindsets have reversed. Where he was a pragmatist always questioning his ideas and she a romantic giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, he now yearns for the love his previous attitude on building a family wasn’t concerned with while she jadedly looks upon her life as a steady string of unreliable men incapable of existing in the moment. Reading Jesse’s book has made her despise the person she was as a naïve specimen of youth and seeing him now brings those feelings to the surface in all their ugliness. It’s the exact opposite of his resignation to never finding her again dissolving into the optimistic possibility of a second chance.
Maybe the novel was a last ditch subconscious effort to reach her and maybe she came to his signing knowing he was the only man she could ever truly love. Either way, Sunset‘s authentic depiction of their disconnect being recharged into friendship before strengthening into sexually frank jokes and devolving into an uncensored exhalation of psychological and physical pain their memories have inflicted is beautifully realized. Every pent up morsel of anger and each lingering, idealized projection from the past flows forth until the hunger to not make the same mistake twice remains. One night of euphoria is enough in youth, but age reveals the importance of achieving longevity. Figuring out whether Jesse and Celine are flash in the pan or the legendary love audiences believe can only be decided if they’re willing to discover it for themselves.