One of the many memorable moments in “Citizen Kane” occurs fairly early on, when the aged Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) recalls an incident from many decades before, when he glimpsed a young woman in passing; he remarks that a month hasn’t gone by that he hasn’t thought about her, though they never even met. Few scenes in films have captured so perfectly the ache of romantic longing, but the whole of “Before Sunset” comes very close to doing so.
Many directors would probably like to revisit their early triumphs–and lots of moviegoers would enjoy seeing what happened to the characters from their favorite pictures–but it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s usually a disappointing return engagement. Richard Linklater avoids the pitfalls in this follow-up to his 1995 two-hander “Before Sunrise.” The movie reintroduces us to the two characters who, in the earlier film, enjoyed much conversation and an incipient romance over the course of a single night in Vienna but then separated at daybreak with the promise to meet again in six months. Nine years later they link up when Jesse (Ethan Hawke), now a novelist, visits a Paris store on a tour promoting his new tome–a thinly-disguised reminiscence of that night so long ago–and Celine (Julie Delpy) unexpectedly comes to his book signing. We learn that their planned six-month reunion never took place, and they’ve not seen one another in all that time; that Jesse is married, with a son; that Celine remains very much the committed activist, with a serious boyfriend. And that they’re still very much in love.
Like its predecessor, “Before Sunset” is mostly talk, as Jesse and Celine spend the hour or so he has free before his plane leaves for the States conversing as they saunter about the Parisian streets, stop in a coffeehouse, take a quick boat trip on the Seine, and take advantage of the limo provided by the publisher to make a stop at her apartment before he has to rush off. The script, devised by the director and the two stars, has a loose, rambling quality that’s revealing, only occasionally seeming a trifle precious and contrived. It has some especially clever touches–one expects (or hopes, really) that making Jesse a novelist is an inside joke about Hawke’s own avocation as a writer–and moments of surprising power, as when Jesse learns that Celine actually lived in New York City for a time, and that a glimpse he caught of a woman he thought was her might have actually been a near-miss. But mostly the dialogue is as straightforward and realistic as it was in the earlier film. The overall tone, however, is quite different this time around. “Before Sunrise” brimmed with the easygoing flightiness of youth, of a guy and a girl with a vision of unlimited vistas ahead of them. By contrast “Before Sunset” has a wistful feel, befitting two characters quite different from their exuberant, free-spirited earlier selves; there’s more than a hint of regret in their attitude about how their lives have gone, an emotion accentuated by their meeting again, which impresses on both the recognition of a lost opportunity that’s impossible to recapture. The first picture was a story about the endless possibilities of the young, while this one is about the realization people have as they grow older that their options are ever more limited, that living also means losing. The joy and the tragedy of the new film is that Jesse and Celine’s single night together remains somehow at the center of their lives; that’s why he’s written a book about it, and why–as we learn late in the picture–she’s composed a song about it (which Delpy sings, quite nicely). And the fact that Jesse’s novel is titled “This Time” poses the question whether this second encounter between them will be less brief than the last one.
On screen, of course, dialogue, however good, has to be delivered in a way that engages the eye as well as the ear, and the director and stars solve that problem very nicely. Hawke and Delpy ease back into their roles effortlessly, presenting a Jesse and Celine who are older but not necessarily wiser, both overjoyed and uncomfortable about meeting again and uncertain about how to proceed. Hawke is still boyishly eager, but shows the necessary moments of sadness too, while Delpy even more successfully captures the tension in Celine’s pysche, with happiness struggling against remorse. (It’s amazing that this absolutely lovely and radiant young woman has never achieved the position of a major international star.) Linklater, meanwhile, works closely with cameraman Lee Daniel to keep the couple moving through the lovely Parisian locations as they talk, thus avoiding any sense of the claustrophobia this sort of dialogue-driven piece can easily engender; he’s a practiced hand at this, of course–going back to “Slackers,” his first film–and by now it seems almost effortless for him. That keeps “Before Sunset” lighter on its feet than one might imagine.
So in form “Before Sunset” strongly resembles its predecessor, but though it’s equally romantic, it’s a romance between characters who have grown and matured and whose lives and expectations are very different from what they were nearly a decade earlier. The apparent slightness of the picture is deceptive: no mere retread, it has surprising depth, and it’s definitely worth a trip to the theatre to get reacquainted with Jesse and Celine. After all, they’re old friends of ours, too. You walk out of the auditorium hoping that you’ll have the chance to see what’s happened to them another nine years down the road.