It’s astounding how effortless Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset feel. Each captures a miraculous authenticity that could be derailed by a moment of artifice: a clunky line of dialogue here, an unconvincing line-reading there, even a showy shot that draws attention to itself could scuttle the film’s immersive realism, the unbroken illusion that we’re watching people, not actors.
Following Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) over one day (Sunset) or night (Sunrise), the films capture the fragility of time, its syrupy slowness. Knowing they have only hours together, Jesse and Celine’s every conversation is redolent with meaning, every phrase and gesture important. They are swimming upstream in the river of time, fighting the current, every stroke taking an eternity while, paradoxically, time trickles inexorably away.
With such time constraints and without the scaffolding of a traditional narrative, every conversation invites analysis and, thankfully, rewards it. The dialogue is reminiscent of Tarantino at his best; instead of the simmering tension or foreshadowed violence that animates QT’s dialogue (where characters discuss everything except the purpose of the scene), the Before films are underpinned by the intense connection between these two individuals. Their bond is immediate and intense from their first encounter.
Before Sunrise finds them dancing around this bond, alternating between self-conscious posturing and jolts of revealing honesty. Watching at around the characters’ age, I found their conversations romantic; rewatching recently I could still appreciate the romance, but was aware of the way Celine and especially Jesse spent so much energy putting up a façade, enrobing themselves in a carefully-constructed persona, the “optimal” version of themselves. In their early twenties, the characters are trying to become who they believe they ought to be. By Before Sunset, they’re more comfortable, settled in their own skin. They’re more guarded; the majority of the sequel is spent with the two engaging in careful verbal probing and feinting: note how long it is before either asks the other about marriage, or children. Age has brought confidence in themselves, but eroded their instinctive trust of each other, at least until that profound connect re-asserts itself.
I write this shortly before watching the series’ third instalment, Before Midnight. If the critical buzz is to be believed, I’m expecting it to match or eclipse the quality of its predecessors. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with Jesse and Celine.