|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.
“Jump ahead 10 or 20 years and you’re married, only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy it used to have,” Jesse entreated Céline in Before Sunrise, asking her to think of time spent with him as a sort of time-travel experiment, a way of reaching back from the future to see what life would have been like if she’d ended up with another guy. Only, in Sunset, it’s Jesse who’s trapped in a loveless marriage, his once-cherubic visage turned narrow and gaunt, a prominent worry line creasing into his brow. The young man who once described himself as a teenager forever rehearsing for adulthood is now the time traveler in search of a way back. As Linklater sees it: “In the first film, he’s on a train, we find out he’s been drifting for two weeks, he’s a ghost. You can do that when you’re in your early 20s, if you’re lucky. Time is the one thing you have. You get a little older, you get a job, responsibilities, and suddenly your days are pretty well parceled out. Nowadays, he wouldn’t be able to get off a train in the first place. He has a destination and a schedule. And she probably wouldn’t be open to the idea either. So, there’s a time in your life where you turn a corner and you can’t go back.”
And indeed, Before Sunset may only fully reveal itself to those who have felt the consuming heartache of roads not taken and borne the scars left behind by time. Which I hope doesn’t make the film sound dreary or morose, because it’s not. In fact, it’s often buoyant and disarmingly tender, perhaps never more so than in its final moments, when Delpy performs a delicate original waltz (one of three songs she wrote for the film) and follows it up with a crack Nina Simone impersonation. But what ultimately makes Before Sunset so special (and maybe the most resonant, least self-conscious “great movie romance” of its era) is its deep-rooted honesty — the way it takes the bitter with the sweet and somehow leaves us feeling elated.
The Bulldogs-Longhorns game is well under way, and my interview with Linklater drawing to a close when Hawke and Delpy stop by to join us. They haven’t seen each other much since production on the film wrapped, and within moments the room is alive with the heady atmosphere of a reunion. “This job was great,” says Hawke, for whom Before Sunset marks his fifth collaboration with Linklater. “I mean, on a lot of jobs, you sit there learning your lines and going, ‘This is shit. Ah well, they’re paying me to make this lamebrain dialogue sound okay.’ Here, we’d finish this huge day of shooting, Rick would have to go do scouting and stuff like that, and Julie and I would sit there trying to run lines while we ate dinner. We worked our asses off.”
The creators freely acknowledge that there is an autobiographical dimension to both films. “It’s kind of like imagining what if we were not who we are, who would we have become?” Delpy says.
“Had we gotten the money to make the movie five years ago, we would have done it then, and it would have been a different movie,” says Hawke. “We had other ideas years ago about how it should be. If it had taken us another five years, we would have bumped into each other at the playground with our kids or something.”
“Well,” Delpy responds, “I would have been on the playground looking at little boys and you would have been with your kids.”
“I would have been picking up nannies,” says Hawke.
“Maybe I’d be the nanny,” says Delpy. “Or I’d be a homeless person on a bench.”
And as to the inevitable question of whether Before Sunset marks the last stop on Jesse and Céline’s journey?
“A lot of it depends on whether we end up having anything else to say,” answers Hawke.
“Remember the idea you had this time?” Linklater prods Delpy. “That they were going to run into each other and she was going to have an 8-year-old kid.”
“I prefer the version where he goes into her apartment,” she says, “and it’s covered in litter boxes and cats everywhere — she’s become this crazy cat woman!”
“Well,” says Linklater, “that’s the next sequel.”
BEFORE SUNSET | Directed by RICHARD LINKLATER | Written by LINKLATER, ETHAN HAWKE and JULIE DELPY | Produced by ANNE WALKER-McBAY | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At Sunset 5, Westside Pavilion, Monica 4-Plex