In 1995 Richard Linklater made a film about a young American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and a young Frenchwoman, Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on the train from Budapest to Vienna, and in the way young people have they impulsively decide to spend the night walking the streets and parks of Vienna before Jesse has to catch a plane home and Celine must continue on to Paris. In the course of the film, whose script was a communal work of the three, they talk endlessly, sharing confidences, expectations, memories, fantasies and even world-views. As the film ends, they make a pact to meet again, exactly six months later, at the train station in Vienna where they're parting. As part of the pact, they don't even take down each other's addresses or phone numbers.
When I first saw the film I was a bit uneasy about what I felt was Jesse's adolescent sensibility - he seemed a little overmatched by Celine's brighter, quicker personality and more experienced world-view - but also by Linklater's own, seemingly adolescent insistence that what these two had to say was really important to us. And then I saw the film again, just before screening its sequel, "Before Sunset," and was able to let go and just enjoy the world of two perfectly-embodied people in their early twenties, doing what comes naturally.
"Before Sunset" takes place nine years later, in Paris. Jesse is now a published author, with a best-selling book, and he is just completing a ten-city book tour with a reading at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. I will not spoil your pleasure in this gem of a film by telling you whether or not they did meet as they had planned. But I can say that as Jesse is answering questions from a small audience at the bookstore, Celine shows up. Jesse must catch a plane back to New York in just a couple of hours, and so once again the two spend their time walking through the city, talking, catching up, using each other as a sounding board, remembering and misremembering that night in Vienna. What is fascinating is that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have created a work that understands the fact that all three are nine years older. Jesse's voice has deepened a bit, he has a frown line now, and he has experienced both success and failure. As we would expect, he is a more interesting person. Celine also has grown; she has lived through affairs, has found a meaningful career that has an impact on the world, and is more open, less guarded, about what her life is and has been. They are more equal, more suited to each other than they were in the first film.
Linklater's camera leads them through the streets, alleys and Seine-side quays, as it did along the Danube in Vienna, never intruding into their walk but never leaving them to make other points. As a director he has absolute confidence in the ability of his people to carry us along with them, to care about them, to wonder what will happen to them. And in the course of the film's hour and a half we learn enough so that we can leave the theatre happy, relieved and excited to have shared this time with them. For Linklater to have conceived this nine years ago was bold enough; to have succeeded then, and to have come back nine years later with this almost perfect sequel is masterful.