'Before Sunset': THR's 2004 Review

Before Sunset - H - 2004
Hugely enjoyable drama about a brief romantic encounter taken up again years later.

On July 2, 2004, after a premiere at the Berlin International Film Fest months earlier, Warner Bros. brought Before Sunset to the U.S. for its theatrical release. The film went on to be nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

The two characters in Before Sunset embrace only once and spend the entire time talking to each other. Yet this is one of the most wildly romantic movies in ages.

That's not the only thing wild about it. This film, made by three people — director Richard Linklater and its two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — is a hugely successful experiment to see if a movie can captivate an audience with a conversation between two people in real time. My Dinner With Andre accomplished this feat for intellectual art house types. Before Sunset does it for everyone else.

This will be one of the first films, if not the first, released by Warner Bros.' new specialty label. Reportedly, Warner Independent Pictures will open the film in June, but what a pity to miss Valentine's Day, for this is a great date movie.

Before Sunset is a sequel to Linklater's Before Sunrise, a romantic drama that won a best director Silver Bear at the 1995 Berlinale. Nine years have past since the young American Jesse (Hawke) and the French student Celine (Delpy) spent 14 crazy, impetuous hours together in Vienna, a one-night stand that they promised each other would continue six months later back in Vienna. Did they keep that rendezvous? The new script by Linklater and his actors delivers a depressing answer: No, they did not.

But nine years later, Jesse has written a book about that one night he never forgot. Celine shows up at Paris' most famous English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., for his book signing. He has a plane to catch for New York in a few hours. That leaves just enough time to grab a coffee, stroll through narrow Left Bank streets, board a boat on the Seine and get to Jesse's car for the ride to the airport. Say about 75 minutes.

As the camera strolls along with the couple, their conversation establishes why they failed to meet, how well they get along nearly a decade later, what each thinks about the state of the world, how their love lives are going and, finally, whether that one-night stand will always be just that.

Few American films have the courage to rely entirely on dialogue and subtext for story. These filmmakers make certain they have nothing else to fall back upon.

To be sure, the two actors are pleasing to watch; indeed, a brief flashback to the first movie establishes they may be better looking now than then. And Delpy does sing a song she wrote late in the film. Otherwise, it's just two people chatting merrily away, asking questions and searching replies for clues as to where they now stand as a couple.

There are unexpected revelations. Both lived in New York at the same time and did their own version of Sleepless in Seattle but never encountering the other. (Tantalizingly, Jesse once thought he saw Celine and is further crushed to realize he just might have.) Jesse also has a wife and son, while Celine has a boyfriend she likes. Now where does that leave them as a couple? While it is clear they are as easy with each other as ever, it is not at all clear this won't be just another chance encounter.

The trio has made a wise film about how age works on people. Life has taught each a few things in the intervening years, so they look at people and options in a different light. That's why Jesse wrote a book and Celine a song about their one night together. It was more of a rare thing than either of them had realized.

Shot in just 15 days on a tight budget, Before Sunset is an accomplished bit of guerrilla filmmaking. Cinematographer Lee Daniel's long camera takes are smooth and unobtrusive, the actors appear relaxed, and the chemistry between them is excellent. Even Delpy's songs are not bad at all. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Feb. 11, 2004