Before Sunrise (1995) has a newly-met couple of college kids, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wandering around Vienna for a night chatting away as they fall in love. Based largely on the charm of the two characters (and the actors playing them), it is a sweet romance that is saved from mawkishness by the tone set by director Richard Linklater who views his characters without condescending to their youth.
Before Sunrise ends with the couple parting ways, agreeing to meet again in Vienna in six months time. They deliberately choose not to exchange addresses or phone numbers. Now, in Before Sunset, Linklater returns to these characters, reuniting them nine years later, played, as before, by Hawke, who looks a bit gaunt now, and Delpy, more radiantly beautiful than ever.
Jesse has written a book based on their Vienna experience and is on a book-signing tour that takes him to Paris, where Celine lives. She comes to the bookstore and they meet again, again circumscribed by time, as Hawke has to fly back home later that day. The format is repeated — they walk and talk while Linklater uses standard Parisian sights as a backdrop.
But these are no longer college kids. They’ve been out and about in the world. Hawke is married and has a son. Delpy has been in a series of affairs, none of them really satisfactory, the best of them with men who aren’t around too much, like the current war photographer/correspondent. But she has a career she loves, working with an organization involved in environmental issues.
Because they are no longer in the first blush of youth, expectations legitimately are for a bit of wisdom to have been gained. The screenplay, credited to Linklater and his actors, does attempt to convey some of what they’ve learned, but it seems mostly canned. Jesse, who has explored some Zen philosophy says things like "Happiness is in the doing, not in getting what you want" and "Life is hard. It’s supposed to be. If we don’t suffer, we don’t learn anything." Celine comes up with this gem: "Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past."
This time around, the concept of the film is better than the execution. When they were college kids, their hopefulness, their idealism, the promise of the future, and even their lapses into banality were all part of a package that caught the romance of that relatively innocent age. It was the talk that defined who they were. Now they are people of experience, and good film drama cries out to have that experience shown rather than talked about. Jesse goes on at length about his marriage, why he went into it, and how it has turned out. Celine complains bitterly about her bad affairs. It’s all second-hand and packs significantly less impact than it should.
There are some observations about American optimism as contrasted with French realism, as well as American virility as contrasted with implied French impotence. And there’s talk about the element of chance in the way their lives have unfolded. But it’s all talk. The power of Before Sunrise was not in the talk per se, but in a romantic observation of youth. Before Sunset never captures a more adult romance; while Jesse and Celine are clearly still attracted to one another, it remains on the level it was nine years ago–puppy-love, kids being both enthusiastic and unrealistic. The experiences they talk about are like so many sound-bites; they haven’t internalized the wisdom that the words suggest.
And banality, while tolerable as part of a realistic picture of youth, is far less appealing in sophisticated adults. "Oh wow! Notre Dame! Check it out!"