Memory is a wonderful thing, if you don't have to deal with the past," declares French Celine (Julie Delpy) to her erstwhile American one-night-stand Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunset, the meandering but reasonably charming follow-up to the duo's 1995 Euromance, Before Sunrise. In the movies as in life, nearly a decade has passed, and the chatty kids have grown up a little, steeped in life some, and in terms of florid dialogue are now "bursting with fruit flavor" (to quote Hawke from his more authentic turn in Reality Bites). It's definitely nice to see them again, even if they offer only three strong scenes here amid a load of quasi-philosophical piffle you could overhear in almost any café.
Those passionate hearts bold enough to retain their memories of the 1990s may recall that these star-crossed Gen-Xers met aboard a train the last time around, and spent the night in Vienna more or less deciding whether or not they should, you know, do it. Fair enough -- there are worse things to do in Europe when you're not dead. But they left their budding relationship to fate, and fate kinda screwed them. Mobile communication devices and e-mail weren't yet omnipresent, and silly Celine and Jesse decided they'd just meet again in Vienna six months later...probably. Whoops.
We pick up with them this time in Paris, and apparently we have entered the world of fantasy. To wit: Delpy plays a French person who doesn't appear to smoke, and Hawke plays an author, with fawning fans, no less. His explicit desire to "build something," relationship-wise, by fictionalizing their brief emotional tryst brings them together at the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the last stop of Jesse's promotional tour before he returns to the U.S. Their eyes meet across the stacks, she looks all of 10 minutes older, he looks in need of radical carb-injection therapy, and then they begin talking.
One must hand it to director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) for doing the seemingly impossible time and again. In Slacker he proved that Austin slop could captivate. In this film's predecessor and his splendid, animated Waking Life (which featured Celine and Jesse in a cameo), he illustrated that passionate romantic yammering has no end, needs no end. And here, in a script conceived from the start with his actors, he sets 'em loose again. At first there is significant resistance; the dialogue feels very forced, and crashing boredom seems imminent. Then, one long tracking shot and one interminable sit in a café later, something human happens, and despite the occasional clinker, these two feel real, like troubled friends.
The crux this time is that they both feel something for one another, but Jesse has only a few minutes before his handlers need to pack him onto a plane and ship him back to New York. Thus, they set out together in "real time" into the human, less glamorous nooks and crannies of Paris (read: "cheaper shooting permits"), where they swiftly divulge everything possible in order to see if they indeed belong together. Then -- whoops again! -- she lights up, disperses the air of fantasy with a puff of nicotine, and they both become flawed human beings. She's gone very lefty, he's more conservative. He has a son, she has a lover. They tease each other with snide sexual comments, test each other with evaluations of commitment. Then comes the kicker.
Celine admits, openly, that she has written a song about her cat. This proves that Jesse is clinically insane, because he does not instantly point, scream and flee. The movie is rife with such remarkable twists.
Before Sunset is also, like its predecessor, an experiment, so even within its short 80-minute duration it is packed with hits and misses. The strong scenes involve Jesse admitting his marital failure and Celine suddenly, fearfully realizing that true love opens the floodgates of vulnerability. It's also worth admission to experience Delpy performing a song near the end; she's a wonderful musician. And then there are drags -- a tedious walk through a pretty garden makes one wish Uma would leap out in her Bride guise, sword flashing, and give Hawke something to remember forever. But that's reading into things a bit.
Wandering around in France, yapping as they do, Delpy and Hawke almost invite comparisons to the much richer film Mindwalk, except that rather than quantum physics and the nature of reality, we get completely self-absorbed discussions from a couple of frickin' actors. That said, they do manage to zero in on how love must grow organically, how lovers must fight restrictive scheduling to cultivate their affections and mutual appreciation. Their thoughts are as scattershot as anyone's, but the movie espouses one delightful theme, and it is this: Fuck punctuality. Amen.