Love is easier to believe in before it's experienced. When we're young, every stranger brings us one step closer to the lifelong bliss promised by Hollywood and Harlequin stories. We soon learn our encounters with true happiness will likely be brief and exist only in retrospect.
Typical storybook romances focus only on those moments. They'll throw in some conflict in a halfhearted nod to an imperfect world, but the audience knows things will end on a positive note.
Before Sunrise, released nine years ago, focused on just that kind of perfect moment. An American travelling through Europe met a beautiful Parisian on the train to Vienna, his last stop and last night on the continent. The pair (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) spent the day wandering a city foreign to both of them, talking and falling in love. That film ended on an ambiguous note with the couple refusing to share any personal information, choosing instead to rely on a naively romantic promise to meet six months later.
Nine years later, Hawke has written a book about that night. On the last stop of his European book tour, he looks up and sees her face. Before Sunset follows the pair through the streets of Paris as they attempt, sometimes awkwardly, to discover where they now stand. Both are more mature and cynical than they were in that perfect moment nine years prior.
Each has lost their faith in love for various reasons over the years. Faced with the prospect of reliving a moment idealized as the pinnacle of their romantic lives, they appear both eager and fearful.
Composed of extended takes and consisting entirely of one conversation, Before Sunset feels honest in a way most love stories never do. Director Richard Linklater's use of extended shots to create a sense of spontaneity. The dialogue, partially written by Hawke and Delpy, feels entirely natural. In many of the more verbose films out there, conversations sound more of a interpretation of how people talk rather than actual conversation and Before Sunset never falls into that trap.
Unlike Waking Life (another recent effort by Linklater formed almost entirely of extended conversations), Before Sunset has enough emotional weight to support its concept. The ease with which we can identify with the couple, combined with the candid nature of the conversation, keeps things interesting. Still, interesting as the dialogue is, it's definitely a plus that the film is only 80 minutes.
Though Before Sunset's ending is much less subjective than its prequel, Linklater makes sure not to tie everything together too nicely. Optimists will see the ending as proof of serendipity while cynics will find enough evidence to believe things couldn't possibly work out. This is a film full of hope and regret, small flirtations and large arguments, awkwardness and idyllic comfort. This is a sophisticated take on love, looking at the subject with a maturity that doesn't often emerge from your local multiplex.