Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 23, 2017)
In 1995’s Before Sunrise, two young people met on a train to Austria and enjoyed a wonderful day/night together before they needed to go their separate continental ways. They promised to get together again in six months, but audience waited nine years to learn if this came to fruition.
As we find out in 2004’s Before Sunset, the later-that-year reunion Jesse (Ethan Hawke) proposed failed to take place. Nine years later, Jesse writes a book based on his 1994 experiences with “temporary girlfriend” Celine (Julie Delpy), and this takes him on a promotional tour of Europe.
Jesse completes this trek in France, where he re-encounters Celine at his book signing. Once again, this occurs with an expiration date involved, as Jesse needs to fly back to the States before too long. Jesse and Celine use this limited time together to catch up and see if their old chemistry still exists.
Would it be a spoiler to indicate the answer is “yes”? Probably not, as Sunset wouldn’t be much of a movie if Celine and Jesse got together again but found they had nothing to say to each other. Though it might be more realistic, as the way Sunset posits Jesse and Celine essentially as soulmates stretches credulity to some degree.
I recognize that Sunset comes with a mix of challenges that mean it might be impossible to please everyone. On one hand, fans of the original want to see Jesse and Celine live Happily Ever After, and they want the dreamy romance of the original to continue anew.
On the other hand, that seems like something of a cop-out. While Sunset shows the ways Jesse and Celine went on with their lives after that one fateful day together, it also posits that neither got over the intensity of that encounter, and I’m not sure how true that would be.
I think all of us can relate to the experiences of Sunrise in some way. No, I don’t argue that most of us had the kind of “movie romance” they enjoyed, but we can identify with the “brief encounter” that left a lasting impression and made us wonder “what if”.
However, I doubt most of us obsessed over those encounters to the degree it appears Jesse and Celine did. Without revealing spoilers, we see how the characters progressed in the nine years between films, and we find out that they still seem really hung up on their first date.
Sunset shows that neither one got over the other and they suffered from the lack of resolution, a choice that seems flawed. How realistic is it that both characters would remain so fixated on that one night? I could buy the notion that one of them never really moved on emotionally, but both?
While this leap of logic gives me pause, I still think Sunset turns into a largely engaging experience because it does attempt to assay the impact of the first film’s “magical moment”. Some of this may take away from the romance, as Sunset disavows fans of any fantasies they took away from Sunrise. If you dreamed that Jesse and Celine met up again in late 1994, fell deeper in love and got married, tough luck!
I like the resolution to that chapter, though, and I enjoy the manner in which Sunset places the two characters together again. Unlike the first film, Sunset essentially plays in real time, so it comes with a tighter construction. We get to follow Jesse and Celine on their constricted “date” and feel the time pressure more than in the semi-languid original movie.
This tension adds to the material, as does the characters’ status. In Sunrise, the viewer could fantasize that Jesse or Celine would give up their regular life to run away with the other, but the restraints found in Sunset make that more difficult.
Really, it’s the greater sense of “real life” that gives Sunset more impact. The characters in Sunrise were so young that they lacked gravity, but their 2004 counterparts have actual life experience under their belts. Maybe it’s just because I’ve become a doddering old man myself, but I find it easier to relate to people who have some years under their belts, and the impact of the time between Sunrise and Sunset adds heft to the experience.
I also feel like we get to know Jesse and Celine better. Yeah, this means a lot of potentially unwieldy expository dialogue absent from the more free-form Sunrise, but I’m fine with that. Sunset manages to integrate the plot notes smoothly enough, so these bits don’t feel clumsy or forced.
Like Sunrise, Sunset concludes with an open-ended finale, though the finish to Sunset feels even more of a cliffhanger. This probably frustrated some viewers in 2004, but I like the choice to avoid a clear conclusion. Once again, the audience can make their own decisions about where Jesse and Celine went after their encounter.
At least until they watch 2013’s Before Midnight, of course. I’ll leave that discussion for another review, and I look forward to the third chapter more than I anticipated. Before Sunset offers a good continuation of the saga, one that improves on the spotty original film.