The Rick-trospective: Before Sunset

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

It doesn’t take much to green light a sequel—just a reasonable opening weekend gross coupled with better than toxic word of mouth—but that’s part of why the continuation to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is so special. Seriously, how many quiet, dialogue heavy indies actually get, much less deserve, a second chapter? As a sequel to a celebrated arthouse picture from a celebrated arthouse director, Before Sunset is an unusual creature. As a sequel few people asked for or saw coming, it’s even more so. But these qualities distinguish the film as the quintessential installment of Linklater’s Before trilogy: in an industry of sequelized cash grabs, it’s the rare sequel that actually manages to not only justify its existence, but also outdo its predecessor.

Strange that Before Sunset should feel like such an achievement. Linklater is neither the first person in movie history to revisit past characters and develop them afresh, nor the first to make a part two that bests a part one. But the film feels nonetheless daring for being so damn unexpected. It’s predecessor, 1995’s Before Sunrise, isn’t exactly an open-and-shut case—there’s certainly room to expand on its central romance—but it doesn’t demand follow up, either, particularly given its position in Linklater’s body of work. Once 2004 rolled around, he’d seemingly moved on from Jesse and Celine to make a couple of comedy dramas (subUrbia, The Newton Boys), an animated existential treatise (Waking Life), and his most accessible, commercially successful picture to date (School of Rock). Nobody could be blamed for thinking he was done with his star-crossed lovers.

We know now, of course, that Linklater had been plotting a rejoinder to Jesse’s and Celine’s first meeting as soon as Sunrise wrapped. Along with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the other two members of his screenwriting cabal, he managed to cobble together the next phase of the characters’ lives in relative secret, a trick they would pull off again with 2013’s Before Midnight. Just try accusing Linklater of going back to the well with that context in mind. (Besides that, there isn’t a lot of money in chattering love stories shot against European backdrops.) Before Sunset isn’t an attempt at cashing in or Linklater’s declaration of creative bankruptcy; rather, it’s an honest example of long-form narrative woven into short form fabric.

Looking back in the rear view, much of what Linklater produced leading up to Sunset’s eventual release feels like busywork (if only just). They’re productions he could get behind in earnest as a filmmaker, particularly Waking Life, well intentioned joints accorded the same amount of care he puts into everything he invests himself in. But watching them today, there’s a pervasive sense that with each he’s just biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to explore what’s happened to Jesse and Celine after the passage of nearly a decade.

Can you imagine Before Sunset without that interval? Linklater had initially wanted to make a much more immense movie, one spanning multiple locations and shot with a far larger budget; the results would have dwarfed Before Sunrise in grand fashion, and may well have been a big old mess, strong evidence of why sequelizing anything and everything is a crime against art. What Linklater eventually did with the picture doesn’t at all fit into the scheme of his original vision. The very concept is incomprehensible.

So it’s fortunate that Linklater isn’t a studio guy, and that he couldn’t secure the kind of funding he wanted to bring his initial vision for the film to fruition. Bereft of excess cash, he had to rely on skill, invention, smart writing, and great performances from his leads. Ultimately, though, he had to make a movie that looked, sounded, and felt an awful lot like Before Sunrise without thoughtlessly replicating that film’s flourishes. We can see the relationship between both films, but for all they have in common they’re totally unalike. Before Sunset presents a sober, serious vision of adulthood divorced from the youthful idealism of Before Sunrise. You’ll laugh often, but you’ll choke on your laughter when the conversation pivots on deep, intimate expressions of grown up fears and anxieties. One second, Jesse and Celine are teasing one another about her weight. The next, he’s lamenting the hell of his crumbling marriage while she frets over the inevitability of time.

Heavy stuff. Linklater, however, shoulders the burden of his film’s gravity and makes it look easy. More than that, he makes it brisk. Eighty minutes of footage moves like quicksilver, allowing the audience to live and breathe alongside its principals in real time. We’re not merely observers to their tete-a-tete, we’re silent participants in it, partners in their heartfelt exchanges of sentiment and philosophical ramblings. More than anything else, Before Sunset is a film about inclusion. All the world’s a stage, and Linklater invites us to share it with his characters. We’re with them strolling through the streets of Paris, as integral a character in the film as Jesse and Celine, beneath the day’s fading light. We don’t want Jesse to make his flight because it means a departure for us, too.

But depart we do, even as Before Sunset arrives at its final conclusion and the credits start to roll. It’s not a permanent goodbye, as Before Midnight proves, but as the final shot fades out, there’s a sense of closure, and even relief, at the suggestion that Jesse and Celine might finally end up together. We know that theirs will be a union subject to conflict and suffering—as all such couplings are—but for one brief beat, the universe relents and we’re left only with two people experiencing quiet, blissful love.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.