Remember when I wrote about my reactions to watching Before Sunrise for the first time at the age of thirty-something? Back when I got the film on DVD, there was a special offer for its nine-years-later sequel, Before Sunset, so I got that one too. After disliking the earlier film quite a bit (my reaction was pretty much that of constantly thinking, “Oh, grow up, you two!”, which didn’t make for an enjoyable experience), I’d decided that I wanted to get this over with: watch Before Sunset so I could pass the two DVDs on to someone. I don’t often get rid of DVDs I’ve bought, but shelf space is at a premium as it is. I knew I was unlikely to watch Before Sunrise again, unless I had some way of reverting to the age of 21 without illegal drugs.
Imagine my surprise when I enjoyed Before Sunset. Not just a bit. Not just in comparison with its predecessor. No, I enjoyed Linklater’s follow-up to his Viennese romance much more than any romantic film I’d seen in a long, long time. And what was even more unexpected: the later film has given me an appreciation for Before Sunset – not so much as a film in its own right, but as a chapter in the overall story.
Jesse and Céline, nine years later, are still the same people – but they’ve both left behind the self-involvement their earlier selves had. Yes, they’re still neurotic, yes, they still go on about the same topics, but differently from the earlier film they actually seem to have a life outside the present moment and a focus other than themselves. Céline’s had a string of unfulfilling relationships, Jesse’s got a son and is trapped in a marriage that has pretty much flatlined. Neither is all that original, but the characters and conversations ring true. Yes, they did in the earlier film, but just to the extent that I disliked the characters more for being credible self-centred twenty-somethings who barely see beyond the horizon of their own navels.
One thing I actually liked about the earlier film was the ending: as much as I didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with Jesse and Céline in their early twenties, there had obviously been something between them, so the moment where they have to leave one another – regardless of their promise to meet again, there, six months later – clicked. The way Before Sunset picks up on this is clever, but it tops it with an ending that in terms of tone and characterisation is perfect.
I’m curious whether I’d now see Before Sunrise with different eyes. I don’t think I’d suddenly like it – I still think it’s a difficult film to appreciate unless you respond to, or identify with, the self-involvement of the characters at least to some extent. But I’d find it easier to see the older characters waiting to emerge from their younger selves. And after this film, as perfect as it is as an ending, I wouldn’t mind catching up with the two again, some years into the future. I don’t actually want that to happen, mind you – but the thought that Céline and Jesse are somewhere out there, living their lives, is one that makes me feel strangely better.