My list of all-time favorite movies is not static. It fluctuates depending on my mood, my phase of life, etc. I even have it sub-divided into “special” movies, masterpieces and just all-around favorites. But one film that sits glowingly atop them all is Before Sunrise.
Before Sunrise was released in 1995 and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two strangers who meet on a European train, establish a nice connection and spontaneously decide to spend the day together in Vienna. The film follows them as they walk around, sit in cafes and share their thoughts and feelings on life. They are around 23 years old, so their conversation revolves around their discoveries of self, their dreams and their heartaches. The camera is a voyeur of sorts, allowing us into the kind of sharing that is magical and familiar. It is a closeness that can only happen with a stranger. A freedom to reveal yourself that is singular.
It is also incredibly romantic. The entire film takes place in less than 24 hours and is completely dialogue driven. It is delicate and charming and ends with the most delightful question mark. Perfection. The morning after my first viewing of it I awoke with the sensation that something Worldy and romantic had happened to me. It is a very precious movie and I’ve watched it many, many times.
In 2004, I was sitting in a darkened theatre when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy appeared on the screen. In my own personal slow motion moment, I realized that I was seeing a preview for Before Sunset, a sequel to my beloved movie. My body was overcome with a combination of euphoria and dread. The delightful question mark would now become an ellipsis and I was fearful of where it might lead. For nine years I was left to wonder what might have become of these people, people I had grown to care for, and now someone had decided it for me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know! I tried to be hopeful and trusting as I silently pleaded with the filmmakers “please, please, please don’t ruin it.”
I went to see Before Sunset with two friends who understood. They also adored the first movie and were equally excited and concerned. The sequel exists in real time, it was released 9 years after the first and the characters are also 9 years older. (Let me go ahead and mention that the characters also happened to be my age in both these films and that may be no small thing.)
To our utter relief, they nailed it. The film-making matured along with the characters. As twenty -somethings the dialogue was existential and painfully hopeful: Who am I? What do I want? As thirty-somethings they asked some of the same questions but the answers were more complex: What is my life? How did I get here? There is more urgency. There is also less time. The movie takes place over a matter of hours, this time in Paris. It is achingly beautiful and ends with another perfect question mark.
Crticially speaking, Before Sunset not only lived up to Before Sunrise, it surpassed it. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were nominated for an Oscar for their screenplay. Their love for this project was inspiring and I felt so grateful to them for caring so.
On May 24th, Before Midnight is being released in theatres. Yes, they have made a third installment. Yes, I feel the same euphoria and dread. Actually, a bit more dread exists this time. Perhaps it’s because I am older and a tad less hopeful in general and, since the characters are my age, maybe they are too. Regardless I will see the movie with my fingers crossed and my heart open. Until then I will once again be silently pleading, “please, please, please don’t ruin in.”
All of this brings up something else. Do you know who else loved these movies? Roger Ebert. It saddens me to think of seeing Before Midnight without being able to run to his review afterwards to revel in his poetry and passion. I also feel so sad that he won’t get to see it. I will miss him greatly. Sometimes a person whom you’ve never met can occupy a very real and dear place in your life. That is Roger Ebert for me, a stranger who I felt uniquely close with. Somewhat like those two youngsters on a train.