Before Sunset

Movie Information

Genre: Conversational Romance
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vernon Dobtcheff, Diabolo
Rated: PG-13

One person’s profound is another person’s pretentious twaddle. And I am very much in the minority where Before Sunset is concerned — 126 glowing reviews versus six naysayers. Because I lean toward the latter, regarding it as pretentious twaddle.

Here’s the scoop: Back in 1995, Richard Linklater contrived a little romantic film, Before Sunrise, about a young American (Ethan Hawke) who meets a young French girl (Julie Delpy) on a train. They have a more-or-less 24-hour romance that ends with them promising to meet again in six months. It was pretty typical Linklater — a lot of talk that always strikes me as stuff I heard back around about 1972, in the dorm rooms of stoned college kids who’d just gotten some gleaning of existentialism. Before Sunrise was also the type of movie that garners good reviews based on being something a little bit different and a little bit daring — and not in the least because it’s small. In some ways, it probably deserved its praise in its modest way.

In the intervening years, Linklater touched on the same characters by dragging animated versions of them into his mind-bogglingly pretentious Waking Life. Now, he’s given them their own movie, which is really nothing more than the pair talking for 80 minutes. How you’re likely to respond to that is going to depend entirely on the level of emotional involvement you have with these two.

Nine years later in Before Sunset, and time has not proved especially kind to the characters in question — in more ways than one. That Celine (Delpy) would tell Jesse (Hawke) he hasn’t changed since their first meeting might have worked had Linklater not chosen to include clips from the first film here (but as it stands, it’s a remarkable statement!). But more than this — as the dialogue makes clear — neither of these two have had a very good time since their overly romanticized tryst of nine years earlier. They’ve gotten by, yes. Jesse has even turned their romance into a not-at-all-veiled novel.

In fact, this book is the contrivance by which they meet again when Jesse’s doing a promotional tour for it, ending his journey at a Parisian bookstore. (One might rightly wonder about the publisher who footed the bill for such a tour that includes a scarcely attended appearance with three journalists in a small Paris bookseller’s shop, but we’ll let that slide.) Celine meets him there and they start talking about not meeting at their appointed rendezvous, and all that’s happened to them in between then and now.

Linklater gets points for structuring this conversation in a series of generally fluid tracking shots as the pair wander through Paris. And there’s also something to be said for the sense of disillusionment each has experienced during the passing years. But not only is the deck too obviously stacked, a lot of the prattle seems like the same-old half-absorbed guff that passes for profundity in so much of Linklater’s work. (Personally, I think his Jack Black comedy, School of Rock, is nearer profound than his more “serious” work.) Worse, outbursts along the lines of, “Wow! Notre Dame! Check it out!” might pass muster with Jesse at 23 in the first film, but seem downright mentally defective coming from a savvy, successful, 32-year-old author!

Technically, the film is hard to fault. It’s beautifully photographed and makes nice use of its Parisian locations. The two central performances — the only real performances in the film, for that matter — are fine (even though Hawke continues to grate on me). So there’s obviously an audience for this film, which most critics have found captivating.

But I can still think of a lot better ways to kill 80 minutes.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Before Sunset

  1. jp in Marylad

    I havent seen this, the sequel, so maybe we’re even because you havent reviewed the original?

    Anyhow, question: Assuming one has serious “emotional involvement” in the original, how would we likely to respond to this? I mean assume the viewer feels so completely in touch with the characters in the original, that he feels that was best romance movie he’s ever seen? What then?

    Well, I mean you often leave the reader with these little conundrums about whether we will accept or reject X depending on Y so I think it’s only fair.

    About the dialogue. I think in this one, the leads actually spent much time writing their own dialogue. For whatever that’s worth. As for the original, every time I have ever fallen in love it has begun with one of these extended, faux existential, pretentious discussions more or less the same way these two did. Clearly that’s what works for people who love the movie.

    Also, thematically, there’s something to be said about impermanence. Jesse talks about the death of his great grandma and Celine talks about the young girl buried in the graveyard (she would never get old) and of course Jesse’s original offer is to pretend this is some meeting that never was. And the final scenes the camera revisits those places in the light of day.

    And oh yes, Ethan Hawke has an odd sense of timing. Anytime you have two actors in a piece like that it can be ruined if they are not on the same wavelength (thinking of Tom Cruise/Hoffman in Rainman). I think the opening scenes in the train are a little rough, at one pt. he asks her to go back to the coach but whatever… Eventually these two hit their stride and it works.

    But that’s the original. Are you going to review it? I’d like to see how far we digress on that one. I think it really captures both the awkwardness and excitement of meeting someone new.

  2. I like negative reviews because it forces one to reconsider. It seems to me that the older you get the more you find idealism unconvincing. Which is what most of this movie, and this series is. An Expression of idealism. Idealism is the romanticizing of realism–the act of forcing once’s ideals on a otherwise neutral world. This review seems to have issue with idealism itself–dorm talk, that’s the second time I’ve heard the expression in a review. Many people, especially Americans, in our nine to five working world, leave dorm talk in the rare view and gravitate towards realism–or some comfortable combination of the two. Those who have reach this stage will find fault in this movie obviously. Yet, even if you reject all the arguments made in this movie, by the characters that is, that is not the point of the movie. The film is not trying to get you to believe anything, because the two characters are not talking to us, the viewer, they are talking to each other, and that is there only concern.

    What is happening is a game of politics (in the most board meaning of the word). The two leads are trying to find a way back to each other but there are obstacles in the way. The first obstacle is their last encounter and the promise that was made–which was broken by one party, and that is the first hurdle they have to jump together. Second, it is the institution of marriage. No matter how forward thinking you are, breaking up a family, which is basically what they end up doing in the film is a hard hurdle to jump. This is the reason for the heavy idealism in their conversation. When do we visit our values? When they come in contact with another one of our values. Like love vs family, and happiness vs responsibility. I’ve read another review of this film that argues they do not take marriage seriously–I strongly disagree with that. Just because somebody gets a divorce or cheats even does not mean they do not take marriage seriously. That’s like saying because a soldier shoots an enemy in warfare that means he does not take human life seriously. No, the fact is, there is more than one human value. The soldier might value the safety of his country over the life of one person. Marriage is obviously an invaluable human institution. However, the second that is being ask is if you are not happy and you are not in love, are you obligated to stay in a marriage. I am not saying there is a right answer to that question. Some would argue yes, love is something that you have to work on, work through and running after someone else is not the answer. Other would argue that you do a disservice to yourself and your partner and any children you may have to continue a loveless relationship. I do not know which is right but this is the road they are walking down together in Before Sunset. It may seem like just pointless talking, but conversations are the backbone of human relations not fist and guns and wars. Through conversation we reevaluate who we are and we must before we take important actions.

    Because it is inappropriate to just ask someone to leave their marriage, or to say to someone I want to leave my marriage for you–inappropriate and painful, they must dance around the topics. This is why the conversation goes from highly impersonal and mostly surface level emotion to deeply personal and highly emotional and this happen slowly, as human beings are naturally tentative in these matters. I personally enjoy listening to strange philosophies, but if you think they are the focus of the movie, you completely miss the point.

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