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Sunrise, Sunset . . . and Beyond 

Richard Linklater tunes up his time machine

Thursday, Jul 1 2004
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Photo (top) by Gregory Bojorquez

Richard Linklater is trying to program a TiVo. It’s just before 10 a.m., a couple of weeks before the opening of his latest film, Before Sunset. And as we sit in the boardroom of the Wilshire Boulevard offices of Linklater’s West Coast publicists, the native Austinite’s thoughts are focused intently on the College Baseball World Series, where in a few moments the University of Georgia’s Bulldogs will take to the field against the University of Texas’ Longhorns in a crucial semifinal game. Before we can begin our interview, we must ensure that the game will be recorded. No great mystery as to who Linklater is rooting for. “I get a little older, and the most mundane things become very important to me,” jokes the 43-year-old, still-boyish filmmaker. “It’s funny what I take seriously.”

Notions of getting older — be they funny, sad or both at once — also happen to form the core of Before Sunset, which picks up some nine years after Linklater’s 1995 feature Before Sunrise, and which depicts the providential reunion of the earlier film’s protagonists. Back then, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was a Gen-X American drifter, blowing from one European city to the next after breaking up with his girlfriend, hiding out for a while before returning to the States. On the eve of his departure, on a train bound for Austria, he struck up a conversation with Céline (Julie Delpy), a grad student en route to the Sorbonne. And they hit it off so beautifully that Céline impulsively agreed to get off the train with Jesse in Vienna and while away the hours with him until dawn. Then, when it came time to part, in one of filmdom’s iconic train-station farewells, they pledged to meet again, right there, in that exact spot, in six months’ time. No addresses. No phone numbers. Just a promise.

There wasn’t much more to it than that, and even at the time Before Sunrise seemed something of an anomaly: In what other movie, before or since, do the future lovers meet-cute while she is reading Bataille and he Klaus Kinski’s autobiography? It was also that rare American film keener on talk than on plot, a My Dinner With Andre in which Andre turned out to be a whip-smart, sexy French babe. The talk itself, cultivated over a long workshop process with the actors, was glorious — witty, literate, attuned to the rhythms of natural conversation and suffused with the kind of wide-eyed optimism that ponders the nature of our place in the cosmos. If that seemed the logical continuation of a disposition evinced in Linklater’s earlier Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise was nonetheless a world removed — literally and figuratively — from those movies’ sprawling ensembles of Texan hipster-weirdoes.

Before Sunrise wasn’t a hit, though perhaps as testament to its oft-cited “Europeanness,” the U.S. box-office gross was nearly tripled overseas. Still, for those who embraced it, the film felt like an instant classic — an alchemic conjuring of characters who articulated the feelings of an entire generation reared by nurturing parents, deprived of nothing, but beset by a profound longing for some undefined other. For a certain 17-year-old college freshman and aspiring movie critic, away from home for the first time and lusting after all manner of new experience, I dare say it was something even more than that: a vessel through which one could vicariously live out burgeoning fantasies of travel, bohemianism and sudden, blind-siding passion.

In the intervening years, Céline and Jesse have rarely strayed far from my mind and, surely, I am not alone in that. Perhaps the farther one grows apart from Before Sunrise, the more one pines for its sense of infinite possibilities. And now there is a sequel, the most remarkable thing about which (and there are many) may be that it exists at all.

“Julie and Ethan and I had talked about a sequel a lot over the years,” Linklater tells me, “but it’s scary, the thought of going back in there. When we watched the first film again, all of us together, we were like, ‘Wow, we could not only screw up this film [Before Sunset], but if we really fuck it up, we’re fucking up that film.”

 

As it turns out, there was nothing to be afraid of. The new movie feels note-perfect. Trading Vienna for Paris, Before Sunset begins in a Left Bank bookshop (the famous Shakespeare and Company, original publishers of Ulysses), where Jesse is a novelist on tour with his first book, the events of which parallel those of the first film. In the crowd, Céline hovers like a welcome apparition. For reasons of chance and circumstance, Céline and Jesse have not seen each other since that fateful parting nearly a decade earlier. And even more so than before, time isn’t on their side: Jesse has barely an hour to spare before he must leave for the airport. So, once more, they walk and talk, hoping to forestall the passing minutes. Almost immediately, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy (who wrote the film’s script together) find their groove like a needle settling into an oft-played record. Again, the dialogue is glorious, touching on current events (globalization, American cultural imperialism) without drifting into glib PC-isms, pulsing with the pleasure that comes from picking up a great friendship right where you last left off. Yet that initial surge of joy is quickly marbled by pain — a tension that Before Sunset keeps in precise balance through to its very last frames.

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