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« Top Ten: Which dramas have been nominated for the most acting Emmys? | Main | Emmy Nomination Announcement, Live »
Tuesday
Jul162019

The New Classics - Before Sunset

Michael C here to honor a film with an emotional impact that hasn't diminished over countless repeat viewings...

Scene: The Car Ride
When people talk about the appeal of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy they tend to focus on the enchanting dialogue or the romantic European locations, but I think one of the big reasons this series is so beloved is that it avoids all the contrivances usually deployed to keep couples apart in movies... 

In most films it’s an external obstacle. The central lovers would surely get together were it not for that war raging or that elaborate deception or if they weren’t so occupied with that bus rigged to explode if it goes under 50 mph. In the Before films there is only Jesse and Celine, continually mustering the courage to act on their feelings, over and over, throughout the decades.

In mid-90’s, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine took a chance by acting on a brief unspoken connection on a train traveling through Europe, and were rewarded with a magic 24 hours together in Austria. In Before Sunset, we find that they spent the intervening years cursing their younger selves for being so careless with that opportunity. Instead of exchanging information they left their possible future together up to the whims of fate. Now in the their thirties they understand the rarity of that kind of connection, and how foolish they were to let it slip through their fingers. But as the stakes are raised, so too is the bravery required to act on their feelings. When the better part of a decade is traversed in one heart-stopping cut from a baby-faced 1995 Celine to her more angular but no-less-beautiful 2004 incarnation, what do they do with this most improbable of second chances? They chat. They keep it light. They pick up the conversation from their youth, as if all their potential happiness isn’t hanging in the balance of every word spoken and unspoken. 

And they manage to keep up the casual pretense for most of the movie, too. At least until the damn bursts in the car scene.

Even before that car ride we sense things are off from the first film. There is an urgency simmering under the surface in Paris not present in Vienna. They talk as if they are afraid this opportunity will vanish if they stop, like it's a dream they are struggling not to wake from. Linklater lets shots run long and keeps the pair in the frame together so we can observe their body language carry on a separate, parallel conversation. Before Sunset takes on the structure of a real-time thriller. Jesse’s impending flight is the ticking clock. A touch on the arm becomes as dramatic as a drawn gun, and there is a nerve-wracking moment on a bench when it seems like Jesse is going attempt a kiss. All the while the presence of Jesse’s wedding ring goes unremarked upon for the first half of the film, building suspense, like Hitchcock’s classic bomb under the table. 

It’s only when time is nearly up, on the car ride back to Celine’s apartment, when the fear of saying nothing finally overtakes the fear of saying something. Only what comes out isn’t romantic, but bitter and angry and sad. It’s as if by skipping all the usual plot convolutions, Sunset is freed to go deeper and delve into the consequences of experiencing a brief taste of perfect youthful romance. Surprise! They’re terrible. Turns out it sets an impossible standard that poisons all future relationships. Celine even tries to jump out of the car at one point, flapping her hand at Jesse in an imitation of his non-stop talking, something we’ve all probably wanted to do to an Ethan Hawke character at one point or another. 

There is a hold-your-breath moment in the car when Celine reaches out for Jesse and pulls back before he can see it. That moment of hesitation perfectly sums up why this series resonates so strongly with audiences. It’s the same reason why “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane” absolutely wrecks people. Both are an acknowledgement of how damned terrifying it is to gamble with your heart. How even after the cathartic admissions in the car that the events of the first film mean the world to both of them, Celine still needs to deliver her famous closing line half-jokingly in character as Nina Simone, just to admit to Jesse that she doesn’t want him to go.

previously on The New Classics 

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Reader Comments (18)

My favorite film of all time.
YES.
Bless you for this.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

"Before Midnight" could only be a comedown after this. Somewhat appropriately, but still, it couldn't reach the heights of the first two.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

My favorite film series of all time. I am hoping for a fourth installment in 2022.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

This trilogy (so far) is sheer perfection. Where are their Oscar nominations for acting?!?!?

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Maybe the best ending scene of any film of this century.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Greatest ending of the 21st Century so far...

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

MrW: I mean, if it doesn't slide down a full letter grade from entry to entry like last time (Sunrise: A-, Sunset: A+, Midnight: B+), sure. But if we're just going to get Linklater and crew having even less of an idea what to do with these characters? Just allow Celine and Jesse to have their happy ending.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Perfect.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

My favourite film trilogy of all-time. Every aspect of these movies is near-perfect.

@Volvagia - I hear what you're saying, but I'm sure many were upset when Before Midnight was announced as they wanted Jesse and Celine's story to end on this (flawless) note. But I'd argue the most recent movie's depiction of a fraying relationship was more true to life than the previous two movies (imo of course).

Here's hoping for Before Dusk (???) in 2022.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Love love love. Incredible films, all three. This one was possibly the hardest to pull off and completely nails it.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Before Sunset is maybe the best film the 21st Century has seen till now.

July 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

I think Before Midnight is equally brilliant in a different way. But Before Sunset left me with the high that I haven’t experienced in watching any other film. The notion of romance, what could have been and what’s in store for the future was so perfectly summed up in the final scene. One of my favorite films of all time!

July 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

GOOD GOD that moment where Celine reaches for Jesse but pulls back... should have WON Delpy the Oscar. Brilliant, perfect moment.

July 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Dan -- it's so crazy she was barely even in the conversation. The Oscar race is sometimes so strange.

Bryan - well said. such a special film.

July 17, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@Dan, for me, it's her delivery of "Of course I remembered" infused with such pain, weighed down by her earlier denial, barley escaping her lips so she can share in their connection. Cannot believe the actors didn't make room for her.

I mean, Staunton, Winslet, Bening are excellent, but Moreno or Swank could've easily been pushed out for Delpy. So weird that they were basically unbreakable at the major nominations

July 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I was thinking about the general lack of recognition for the performances while I was writing and my only explanation is that it’s the kind of totally self-effacing acting that makes you forget you’re watching a performance at all.

Also- I bet Delpy has a First Reformed level performance in her if someone would write her the part

July 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Cusumano

I've forgotten most of this movie, to be honest, mostly remembering it as more time with two of my favorite characters as they just shoot the breeze. That ending though... ugh... one of the most endearing moments ever on film.

(This is a great series, Michael! Keep it up!)

July 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

The Casablanca of the Noughties..

One of the most romantic movies I ever saw, and tt is before i even seen Before Sunrise, which is good, but Sunset to sheer perfection!

Its in inevitable tt Before Midnight has nowhere to go but down after this masterpiece.

Before Dawn in 2020??? Nay...juz let the Trilogy be...

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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