Before Sunset ★★★★★

There's a moment about halfway through Before Sunset that I can't get out of my mind. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are sitting in a Parisian café, and she lights up a cigarette. He's got the demeanor of a man who has quit smoking against his will (probably at the behest of a significant other, whom I'm guessing broke his spirit with the subtlest "I just want you to be healthy" psychological warfare imaginable), so he steals a quick glance at the carcinogenic happiness hanging from Delpy's lips. And then... there's this look that comes across his face. Richard Linklater doesn't draw any attention to it, and it's so brief that you might miss it. But it's a look that says "I remember what it was like to be twenty-three, chain-smoking until dawn and caught up in conversation with the girl across from me." (Can I have a drag of that?) It's the look of a man who was once in love with this girl, and was in love with himself for being in love with this girl. (Actually, do you have another one of those?) It's the look of someone who's relieved that there's at least one thing that hasn't changed over the past nine years, this one slender thread that connects the events of the present to the memories of one night in a happier time. (Can I get a light?) It's a perfect moment.

It's perfect because it's honest. Hawke looks exactly as he should look, and behaves exactly as he should behave. And that's the beauty of Before Sunset, perhaps even more than its equally-impressive predecessor. Age has stripped some of the idealistic veneer off of Jesse and Celine, and this allows the film to tap into moments of truth that weren't necessarily possible in Before Sunrise. I mean, this movie is still as much of a faerie tale as the earlier film, made for people who dream about finding their soulmates and engaging in rambling conversations far more witty and erudite than anything they could ever come up with themselves. But Linklater instinctively knows how to ground his characters in moments that resonate on a purely realistic level, and suddenly the faerie tale seems plausible. I love The Princess Bride and Singin' in the Rain and the films of Preson Sturges because they allow me to engage with a beautiful fantasy. I love Before Sunset because it allows me to believe in the fantasy.

And I know that I've been talking about perfect moments and perfect honesty and whatnot, but here's the beautiful paradox of the Before Sunset fantasy: I can believe in it because it isn't perfect. This isn't the story of two beautiful, intelligent, fascinating people whose love has traversed the ages unspoiled. It's about two (beautiful, intelligent, fascinating) people thrown together after a decade of unhappiness, insecurity, and disappointment. There's no guarantee for a blissful future as our heroes free themselves from the shackles of their unhappy memories, either. Jesse and Celine (and just about all of the rest of us) aren't wired that way. They can't quarantine the past, or temporarily set it aside to exist in the moment (which their younger selves had little problem doing). For all their desire to pick up right where they left off, their conversations inevitably drift towards the messiness of their past and present selves. Whereas their younger incarnations talked about art and literature and beauty, they now speak of toddlers and careers and the threat of global warming. But there's that spark that gets kindled, a spark that suggests that maybe, maybe, there are still possibilities that exist outside of what they've grown accustomed to expect from their lives. And isn't that a more beautiful, humble, life-affirming sentiment than "they lived happily ever after?"

And I'm not even really scratching the surface of what makes this film so special. There's wit and wisdom in the dialogue, of course, and the film gives us two leads with such natural chemistry that it feels scientifically engineered or something. But my affection for this film goes deeper than that, to a place that I can't exactly explain. How do I describe the joy I get in seeing Jesse bum a smoke or hearing him extemporaneously quote Thomas Wolfe? Or how about the delight I get from seeing Celine dance to Nina Simone or tell a dirty joke about a Buddhist monk? These aren't moments that have any grand importance. They don't convey any deeper meaning about life or love or anything else. Still, they're moments that thrill me and comfort me for reasons beyond my understanding. Maybe it simply comes down to this: I love Before Sunset because it allows me to briefly inhabit a world where people like Jesse and Celine exist.

Cramer liked this review