This is what the beginning of summer, with school already a fading memory just a day after it’s ended, felt like for director Richard Linklater, whose milieu here was Texas in the late 1970s. Trailing after a dozen or more recently freed high schoolers as they search for a party, contemplate their dubious roles in the social order, and inflict or escape from the hazing rituals that may be particular to suburban Austin schools, the film is dense with detail, one-liners, deft performances, and astutely observed reality—though it may take two viewings to mesh with the movie’s unique rhythms. It’s also something of The Outsiders of its generation, more or less introducing the world to future stars including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams, and Parker Posey.
The setting is Paris, the archetypal hub of romance, and we rejoin Celine and Jesse nine years after they left each other at the train station, swearing to meet in Vienna six months later, in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. With that movie, we were clearly supposed to wonder if they’d actually meet up—and, just as clearly, we weren’t supposed to know for sure either way. But this sequel, coming a decade later, with a decade’s wear and tear having accumulated on the actors and the characters, gives us a Valentine’s Day–style answer we had no right to expect. Before Sunset is both intelligent and sexy, and whether you sigh dreamily over the notion of love at first sight or scorn it, the screenplay approaches the concept in such an original way that you won’t have the heart to scoff: Celine and Jesse share humorous, offbeat musings on life while they meander around Paris in the late-afternoon sun, just as they did when they wandered Vienna, but now they avoid—until they’re no longer able to avoid—the paths their lives have taken, because no, they never reunited as they’d promised. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have invested so much in these characters that they share screenplay credit with director Richard Linklater.
Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), each alone and separately heartsick, meet on an aimless train ride through Austria, and decide to disembark and spend a day talking. That’s all there is to it—or, almost all—and yet this impossibly brilliant, moving film is a perfect date movie. Actually, it might be too perfect—does it raise expectations too high regarding just-met sparkling conversation, witty sex appeal, and intelligent soul sharing? Jesse and Celine seem preposterously and blissfully well suited for each other, no matter how messily realistic Richard Linklater’s screenplay is about emotional exchange—could their ease and confidence intimidate the naturally nervous dater? Perhaps—or maybe it’d help boil the water and get the gears greased. The socially handicapped might consider it a form of basic training to view this movie on (or even before) a date. Pay attention, pilgrims: this is how it is done. Better than its sequel, Before Sunset, and far, far better than the third time at bat with these characters, Before Midnight.