Two strangers meet on a train and impulsively decide to spend one night in Vienna. Nine years later they're reunited for an afternoon in Paris. Hard to imagine that such a simple scenario would forge one of the finest screen romances of recent times. But that's what director Richard Linklater achieved when he returned to the characters of his 1995 indie Before Sunrise for 2004's Before Sunset, answering questions that had been left tantalisingly dangling and adding a second chapter to what could quite easily become an ongoing saga of irresistible brief encounters.
Not that the Slacker helmer had such a bold scheme in mind when he first threw American drifter Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and chic Parisian student Celine (Julie Delpy) together on that European loco. Indeed, the most delightful thing about Sunrise is the unstrained spontaneity with which their relationship unfolds once she accepts his off-the-cuff offer to disembark in the Austrian capital. Strolling streets made famous by The Third Man to the sound of Beethoven and Strauss, Jesse and Celine make a connection too strong to last just one night. So when they part, promising to return to Vienna in six months' time, they're not the only ones hoping the other will honour the agreement.
The fact that they didn't adds an extra helping of pathos to Sunrise's belated sequel, in which Jesse - now a successful novelist - bumps into Celine during a book tour in Paris. The spark's still there, but it's tempered by caution, cynicism and an unspoken fear of rejection. It's also possible that Jesse, now a husband and father estranged from his wife, cooked up the whole ruse in the hope of getting Celine back in the sack. Though Hawke's raddled features reveal all too clearly the nine years that have elapsed since Sunrise, Sunset does the unthinkable by creating a film every bit as poignant, charming and tender as its predecessor, topped off by a delicious open ending that suggests we have not seen the last of these on-off lovers.
While the two movies stand perfectly well apart, the real joy is in how they inform, reflect and enhance each other through a series of artfully positioned parallels. Note also how Linklater lets his stars (never better, by the way) to filter their own personal experiences into their characters, with Hawke's well-publicised marital difficulties and Delpy's environmental concerns lending additional curve to their well-rounded protagonists. Most of all, relish the dialogue: intelligent, witty and articulate, it trips off the tongue with such unaffected ease you can hardly take it all in at one sitting.
Laughter and tears, love and regret: the gap between Linklater's flawless two-handers is the space between every couple struggling to reconcile romance with reality. Individually, Sunrise and Sunset are wonderful. Together, they're perfection.
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