Still bittersweet after all these years 

A review of Before Sunset

click to enlarge Nathan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine in Before Sunset.
  • Nathan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine in Before Sunset.

Before Sunset (R)
Warner Independent Pictures

For the last 10 years, I've had an intermittent hate affair with Ethan Hawke. From his willingness to exploit his celebrity to get his novels published, to his contempt for shaving, to his culpability in the despicable Reality Bites, there's no shortage of reasons to register as a Hawke hater. But I hate him for more subjective reasons.

Ever since he transitioned from Dead Poet boy toy to a Serious Actor, Hawke became possessed of a self-satisfied aura that, however impossible to prove in court, couldn't be more obvious on screen. Take a look at Reality Bites -- yes, I know it's painful -- and you can almost see the following loop of interior monologue:

I am SO hot... SO ... hot... Can you get over how HOT I am? ... I can't get over how HOT I am. ... I am SO hot. ...

But just as you're ready to wish him the fate of a thousand Corey Feldmans, Hawke will do undeniably decent work. See Training Day and now see Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's sequel to his 1995 hit Before Sunrise. For the unfamiliar, the latter was a bittersweet romantic lark about two young train travelers, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who step off in Vienna and fall in love one fantastical summer's night. While they vow to meet in exactly six months, Before Sunset begins nine years later when Jesse is touring his semi-autobiographical novel around Europe and finds Celine waiting for him at a Parisian bookery.

Like its prequel, Before Sunset is a yapping dialogue fest shot in endlessly long takes. In Before Sunrise, the young lovers enjoyed an afternoon and full night together. Nine years later, they have an hour and a half before Jesse has to catch a flight home. This helps to explain their schizophrenic conversations, which run from their childhoods to Euro-American politics to how their current romantic entanglements have been shaped by a night neither one has ever let go of.

What's happened in the intervening decade is not without its surprising tidbits. Without revealing too much, we learn that Jesse returned to Vienna six months later, only to be stood up. We also find out he is unhappily married with a 4-year-old son and Celine's dating a photojournalist.

Falling in love under the shadow of a transcontinental shot clock is the ultimate relationship for the noncommittal. But one never gets the sense that these two might've-beens are merely afraid of intimacy. That would be too easy. Hawke says he kicks himself for not having exchanged phone numbers nine years ago. But back then, such a gesture would have been polluted the experience with, gasp, "expectations."

So young. So naive.

Delpy is more guarded, capable of maintaining her composure until it spills out in a thoroughly convincing stream of psychobabble. At times, both characters seem too cerebral to have fallen in love in the first place, and imagining other actors in their roles is a temptation. For my money, I'd swap Hawke for Tobey Maguire as he can convey actual emotion whereas Hawke is limited to earnest anxiety.

Delpy, for her part, is delightfully uneven. Convincing while enraged and doling out improvised wit, her riffs on sexual politics and other sorts of neurosis feel like some sort of audition for a Woody Allen project -- back when the Jane Austen of the Upper East Side bothered to write complex female characters.

There's a lovely simplicity to this story and some great whimsical dialogue. Even if you wish to stay true to your loathing of Mr. Hawke -- lest you feel you've been sissified by a "love story"-- you can still enjoy this film. In fact, should Linklater, Hawke and Delpy team up in 2013 for Before Naptime, I'll be the first in line. Perhaps by then the two lovers might actually have spent more than a few hours together. Or better yet, maybe Hawke will have learned to shave.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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