In the first, “Before Sunrise,” which came out in 1995, two early-twenty-somethings played by Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Celine) meet on the train from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse has one night before his plane leaves back for America and he convinces Celine to spend the night with him wandering around Vienna, where they talk about life, love, dreams, everything.
“Before Sunset,” which came out in 2004, picks up after those intervening nine years. Now in their thirties, Jesse and Celine walk around Paris before Jesse has to fly back to the US, and this time they’re dealing with the weight of real adulthood and exude a palpable sense of nostalgia and regret.
These very simple premises are held aloft because of the way Jesse and Celine so totally encapsulate that tenuous, rare, and electric connection you can have with some people: when everything aligns just so and you’re consumed by the surprise and novelty of finding someone who completely excites you. There are people who are just magical to all of us, and Hawke and Delpy capture that instant familiarity and the rush of falling in love
Then, later, they reconnect after nine years and test the strength of that brief connection.
Place of Change
The first time I watched these movies was around 2004-2005, shortly after “Before Sunset” came out, when I was in my early twenties and still in the exciting early days of a relationship. Of the two movies I naturally identified most strongly with “Before Sunrise,” the younger movie of the two. I was roughly the same age as the characters, the world seemed full of endless possibilities, and my future was so excitingly uncertain.
At the time, “Before Sunset” struck me as poignant but also incredibly, almost needlessly sad. The characters were stressed and intense and (SPOILER) stuck in loveless relationships and thinking about what might have been if things had just unfolded differently on the platform six months after they first met.(/SPOILER)
But now, at age 31, I re-watched the movies at a vastly different place in my life and it was like watching completely different movies.
Now “Before Sunrise” was an exercise in nostalgia, remembering how intense conversations felt at that age, the sense of adventure, and the brave early twenties naivety of thinking life will be completely easy because we are the special ones, at long last, that truly get how the world really works.
And now it’s “Before Sunset” that I identify with the most, not least of which because it turns out, like Jesse, that this year I was having a novel come out at the same time that I was starting a new life with some of the same weighty thoughts of what might have been. (Though I have not, sadly, done a reading at “Shakespeare & Company” in Paris like Jesse).
That intense melancholy of “Before Sunset” that I once found almost maudlin is something I now see all around me in my peers. It’s the quarter-life crisis of reaching a certain point in your life just by doing the right thing and hitting the right benchmarks of college, first job, dating, marriage, before inevitably being beset by forces outside of your control. There’s a sense of wandering and uncertainty that sets in when you begin to face the weight of major decisions and choosing the right relationship (or not) or sensing you’re in the wrong career.
Your early twenties are the time when you think you have everything figured out; at some point before the end of that decade you realize that you don’t.
Changing in Place
What’s amazing about these movies is that because they’re set nine years apart they thoroughly embody this passage of time and maturation that we all go through, while at the same time retaining that essential magic between Jesse and Celine. Life moves on, we change, we age, and yet something essential remains.
And that’s the amazing thing about art. These movies haven’t changed at all since I saw them last, that essence hasn’t moved a bit. But I have changed, the world has changed, and how we all respond to works of art evolves.
The movies may be the same but they mean something different than they used to and they’ll continue to change while remaining exactly the same.
Now it’s nearly nine years after “Before Sunset,” and Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are reportedly considering a new installment. I’m so curious to see where these characters are at forty, and dearly hope that if there is a new sequel that it makes the past movies even better and deepens their meaning, as “Before Sunset” did for “Before Sunrise.”
But no matter what happens I’m sure my feelings about these movies, so bound up with my own personal history, will continue to change as I revisit them at different stages in life.
That’s the beauty of stories. They change with us and always give us something new.