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