Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) were introduced to audiences in 1994. Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s story of a one-night romance in Vienna was a chemistry-infused talkathon that ended on a deliciously ambiguous promise. It’s probably because of that ending that a sequel, 2004’s Before Sunset, felt appropriate.
It’s been almost another decade and, like Michael Apted’s Up series, time to check in again on some old friends.
R for sexual content/nudity and language
I’ll try not to give too much away, but a lot has changed in the last decade. It seems acceptable to disclose that Jesse and Celine are now a couple, and they have children together — twin daughters who are about 7 or 8.
Jesse sees his son of 12 off from Greece, sending him back to his mother in Chicago. Outside, Celine waits for him in their car with their two blond 7-year-old girls. The film is composed of a series of long conversations in different settings, all over the course of a couple of days. The first conversational set piece takes place as they drive their girls (sleeping in the back seat) back to where they are staying.
They are staying at the house of a writer named Patrick, played by Walter Lassally. This is Lasally’s first acting credit; he seems to have retired from cinematography after more than 100 movies and TV shows; he was director of photography on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. As an actor, he commands his scenes like a respected and well loved professor.
Patrick has invited Jesse and Celine, along with another couple, Stefanos and Ariadni, (Panos Koronis and Athina Rachel Tsangari) for six weeks on the Greek coast. Jesse is writing and Celine is between jobs — not just metaphorically, she’s actually on the cusp of taking a new job.
My Dinner with Patrick
It is near the end of their stay, and another memorable set piece takes place as they dine with their host and all the other couples, including a young college-aged relative, Anna, and her boyfriend Achilleas (Ariane Labed and Yiannis Papadopoulos).
The young couple provide an interesting point of comparison to Jesse and Celine. They seem to have a similar story about falling in love all of a sudden. But living in the information age, it was impossible for them to disappear from each other for 10 years. They Skyped a lot and slept in separate beds with their laptops open, webcams pointing at their sleepy faces.
Meanwhile Patrick and his new partner Natalia (Xenia Kalogeropoulou) offer wisdom about how to stay together happily for a long time: live separate lives, together.
You could identify a plot by picking out the major arguments in the many conversations between Jesse and Celine. Maybe it’s about whether they will move to Chicago to be nearer to Jesse’s son after many years in Paris. Maybe it’s about whether they will stay together after all these years, or if their time as a couple has come to an end. But Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (they share the movie’s writing credit) are less interested in plot details and more interested in ideas and conversations that lead to interesting insights. The conversations and the ideas they spawn offer the movie’s satisfaction and raison d’etre.
Ultimately, they talk more about the future than the past. Jesse’s grandmother has just died, within a year of his grandfather, opening the door for the characters to imagine themselves when they are in their 80s and 90s. It almost doesn’t matter what answer they give. The conversation is the thing.
I wish I could say their conversations were realistic. They are certainly interesting and they have the flow of a really good, deep evening of talk with smart friends. But really, the artifice shows. Each of them carries 50% of the conversation, and each is always able to offer something new, even after years of being together. Even the fighting seems a little unnatural, as first he, then she, refuses to let drop a misunderstanding or concede a valid point from the other.
Perhaps that assessment says more about me than the movie. But it’s an ideal that I like, and for two hours, I enjoyed seeing these artists’ collaborative take on life, relationships, and conversation. It’s reassuring to see human beings, about my age, coming to grips with life in a way that’s recognizable and desirable, if not perfect.
And if they decide to meet again in another decade like Michael Apted and his Up subjects, then I’ll mark my calendar.