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Before Sunrise/Before Sunset – Richard Linklater (Director), Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

filmI’d never heard of this cult indie (now) trilogy of films starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke before the release of Before Midnight recently.

In the first film, Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy’s student Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse meet on a train in Vienna one afternoon, hit it off, and wander around the city until the morning when Jesse is due to board a plane back to the USA and Celine returns to Paris.

Both leads pulled off the trick of making the conversation seem completely natural and unscripted. They’re earnest and sensitive without being annoying. Julie Delpy is particularly engaging, fresh, vivacious and has great presence. Vienna looks fab, and the ending, with the camera panning over all the places that the two visited together, is suitably sad and effectively empty. The timeliness of the film in itself is also rather affecting. A few years later and the two would have been swapping email and either Facebook fast tracking to happy ever after or petering out to nothing.

I have to admit, though, that Before Sunset was really the one I was more interested in watching. I wanted to see whether it would make a difference having Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke co-write the screenplay, rather than just saying the lines.

Ten years after, Sunrise and Jesse has written a bestselling novel about their night in Vienna. He is in Paris on a book tour and who should turn up to see him but Celine?

I found Before Sunset lot more interesting than Before Sunrise. The characters seem warmer and deeper, although it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the actors’ contribution to the process of making the film. It could just be something to do with what happens to us as we get older, and our characters layer over with complexity and memories. Or it could be to do with our recognition of characters we already know from the first film.

For example, Before Sunset is more humorous than Before Sunrise, and the humour is based in recognition. Right from the beginning, when we recognise Celine standing there at the back of the book signing, and we see Jesse recognising her, and losing his track of thought. Jesse says “Merci beaucoup” and we smile at the reminder of his terrible French. Celine is still slightly neurotic, but aware of it. Between them there is the friction of awkwardness, of one of them having turned up for their meeting, and the other not. They feel the clash of their cultures more. They even disagree over their memory of having slept together or not.

It is also more urgent than the first film. They don’t have long together before Jesse’s plane leaves, and the film unfolds in real time (I seem to recall Jesse talking about real time film on the train in Before Sunrise, all those years ago). As we do become more urgent in our thirties, in a more global sense, the sense of possibility we felt when we were younger fast tapering off.

The acting is still sharp, with Delpy and Hawke doing a great job of portraying their characters ten years on. Delpy has the best lines, but then she has had the more drama-friendly life. While Jesse has been writing and immersing himself in his family for the past few years, Celine has been living the life of the “angry manic-depressive activist”. She says of her older, wiser self, “It’s better I don’t romanticise things as much any more. I still have lots of dreams but they’re not in regard with my love life.” She admits that nothing and nobody in particular has prompted this. But maybe this is a universal truth. Maybe this is what it is to get older. Do we become what we become because of the cumulative effects of life cause us to put barriers up? Or is it us? Do we make the barriers that age us, with the decisions we make?

I like the fact that Before Sunset builds on Before Sunrise.  If I had only seen Before Sunrise, I wouldn’t have known what all the fuss was about.  It’s fascinating that the film makes you care about the characters, not through the usual tricks of suspense or peril or engaging your sympathy but simply by making them seem real.  I am looking forward to Before Midnight, and seeing how that will develop the characters further.

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