Before Sunset represents the absolute pinnacle of the perniciously named romantic comedy genre. In fact, to almost categorise it as one seems like a disservice to both the film and the aforementioned genre. As a film, it has more in common with Woody Allen pictures; ideas bursting at the forefront. However, this is undervaluing it too. On the surface, one can liken it to Jazz in the sense that it has some counter-intuitive elements that are all fused together, but the result is seamless, smooth and utterly delightful.
The story picks up nine years after the events of the first picture, Before Sunrise. The film in its first quarter does elegant work of catching up the audience who may not have familiarity with Celine and Jessie’s first meeting. Whether it is the quick flashback shots of remembrance or directly addressing plot points and ambiguities of the prior film, it is neatly done.
The film again takes place in a stunningly beautiful European city, which this time is Paris due to Jessie being there for the last leg of his book tour. The capital is used sparingly, with minimal locations and scenery changes. However, the conceit of the film that is real time in the late afternoon results in some stunning, radiant shots, which particularly impress when Jessie and Celine are travelling on a boat overseeing the city.
This is a stark contrast to Venice in the first picture, which was infinitely unfolding like a rich tapestry of discovery, as young Celine and Jessie walked its streets through the course of one long embracing night.
Paris is also the city where Celine lives and from a screenwriting perspective, this seems adept as one could argue that she has the most development. We get to observe how life has changed her, romantically and politically, as well as hear interesting stories of her time in New York.
From an acting perspective, Julie Delpy rises to the challenges of her character tremendously well, and her best work comes towards the end of the picture, two scenes particularly cast an impression. The first is the car ride back to her house. Through the course of an intense emotional six-minute monologue, Delpy finely unravels her strong, impassioned persona. As she reveals how that one night with Jessie has affected her life in many painful ways, showing a deep seeded fear, frustration and vulnerability.
The second scene is near the end when Jessie puts on some music, and Celine starts recounting her experience at a Nina Simone concert. If the aforementioned scene was a powerful emotional outburst, then this scene is a relaxing, smile-inducing, seductive scene that reveals Delpy’s excellent comic talent and natural rhythm. It is truly the best scene in the film.
However, this does not take away from Ethan Hawke’s performance as Jessie. The screenplay gives him some beautiful monologues, mainly at the beginning of the film when he is talking to the press about his book. There is one where he is talking about an idea he has for a novel that lasts the amount of time of a pop song. Hawke delivers this with a great casual confidence while balancing this facade of calmness in the face of seeing Celine again.
The screenplay gives Jessie less in terms of depth, and his life experiences are put on the backburner. As a result, Hawke’s performance can be seen as reactionary through most of the film. However, Hawke brings his usual charm and likeability, that it offsets this potentially huge problem, in addition to delivering in the emotional scenes.
Finally, the film romantically deals with the reunion, which it does extremely well, evoking the real bittersweet nature of it, and almost how contradictory it can be. In one regard, Jessie and Celine are happy to see and be in one another’s company. However, on the other hand, their meeting brings up feelings of regret. In addition to a painful reminder of time and how they can’t escape it, nor the fate of what they desire or feel for one another, despite the lives that they presently lead.
Like many great cinematic works, Before Sunset transcends mere entertainment by directly speaking to the human condition. In particular, regret, the immediate choice and the lovely ways life can turn, even in the face of the impossibility of forces such as time and ageing.