Coming nine years after the engaging "Before Sunrise," which followed strangers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on an all-night bull session through Vienna, is a savvy sequel that should speak to anyone who's let that one great love slip away. Pic will be embraced by those who responded to the original and ignored by those who didn't.

Coming nine years after the engaging “Before Sunrise,” which followed strangers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on an all-night bull session through Vienna, “Before Sunset” is a savvy sequel that should speak to anyone who’s let that one great love slip away. A deeper, darker relationship reality check that maintains a fundamental optimism, Paris-set pic will go out June 25 as the first release by Warner Independent Pictures, and will be embraced by those who responded to the original and ignored by those who didn’t. Cross-promotional studio push for a DVD of the original would help.

Linklakter has wisely pulled back from original’s 101-minute running time and organically involved returning leads in the scripting process (augmenting characters created with original co-writer Kim Krizan). He also ensured the long-spent surprise element of the first film is replaced by a more poignant chemistry that utilizes the pair’s life experiences since their first meeting.

Now a novelist at the end of a 10-cities-in-12-days Euro book tour, Jesse Wallace (Hawke) is giving his final press conference at a sparsely attended signing in Paris’ legendary “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore. It soon becomes obvious the subject of the never-named tome is his brief encounter with the French student in the Austrian capital over one night in the summer of 1994.

As he fields queries, clips from original are interspersed under his awkward answers, even as a wedding ring can be glimpsed on his hand. In the midst of a complicated thought involving the idea that “time is a lie,” Jesse glances over to see Celine herself (Julie Delpy) smiling shyly at him. With less than two hours before chauffeur Philippe (Diabolo) is due to deliver him to the airport for his flight home, Jesse takes off with Celine on a stroll through a serene Paris and remembrances of things past.

At first they’re annoyingly nervous. She’s clearly conflicted over having their encounter turned into a book, and the fact neither one of them showed up for their planned meeting six months after the Vienna adventure has weighed heavily on them. Yet through these early scenes their chemistry is obviously re-synching, and before long, they’ve fallen back in the groove of gabbing about everything under the late afternoon sun.

Inevitably, talk veers toward what they’ve been doing with their lives. At first it’s all good news, as the still flighty but determinedly intellectual Celine speaks passionately of the various environmental and activist causes for which she works. Jesse talks warmly of his young son Henry and seemingly wonderful wife.

But soon an undercurrent of tension and resentment can be detected. Pair still tease each other frankly about sex, but begin an odd game involving whether they were actually intimate during their Vienna encounter. Slowly, inevitably, their deep regret at not at least exchanging phone numbers is revealed, leading to revelations about the choices they made and must now live with.

As they move from cafe to park to a sightseeing boat on the Seine to Jesse’s limousine to Celine’s peaceful flat in a leafy courtyard, it becomes clear that neither one of them wants to be the first to say goodbye. Perhaps predictable but still delightful, fade suggests they haven’t completely given up on the concept of an enduring romantic love, either, and leaves the door open for a future installment of this relationship-in-miniature.

If the original’s placement in the Austrian capital can be seen as a reference to Freud and psychotherapy, setting the sequel in Paris suggests a postcard version of love that can be elusive and dispiriting.

Pic reps a step out of the highly commercial vein of “School of Rock” for Linklater, who once again focuses on the pressures of time on relationships that marks many of his other films, including “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” and similarly real-time “Tape.”

Cleverly playing on his real-life rep as a sometimes scribbler, Hawke (making his fifth film with Linklater) deftly balances glimpses of the goofy, grunge-era Jesse from the original with the more successful, if no less satisfied, adult he’s become. Delpy infuses Celine with a mixture of coquettishness and gravitas that makes her seem still somehow wiser and more mature than Jesse. It’s a credit to both thesps that their intervening stardom hasn’t diluted their comfort with these characters and each other.

The supporting cast is much smaller this time around, and brief interactions never divert interest from main story.

Tech package is unobtrusively pro, with solid contributions from longtime collaborators d.p. Lee Daniel and editor Sandra Adair, as well as firm hand of Steadicam and “A” camera operator Jim McConkey. Soundtrack features three songs written and performed by Delpy, including “A Waltz for a Night,” a funny and touching tune about their previous encounter.

This is actually thesps’ third pass at the characters, having played Jesse and Celine in bed during a section of Linklater’s 2001 “Waking Life.” MPAA’s R rating for a few passing sexual references seems as harshly judgmental as the one given to original. Print caught in Berlin competish, where Linklater won the 1995 director Silver Bear for story’s first installment, looked finished, but had an end caution that “these credits are not final.”

Before Sunset

Production

A Warner Independent Pictures release (in U.S.) of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation of a Detour Filmproduction. Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Executive producer, John Sloss. Co-producer, Isabelle Coulet. Directed by Richard Linklater. Screenplay, Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, from characters created by Linklater, Kim Krizan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Lee Daniel; editor, Sandra Adair; music, Delpy, Nina Simone, Glover Gill; production designer, Baptiste Glaymann; costume designer, Thierry Delettre; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Bernard Bats; assistant director, Jerome Borenstein; Paris casting, Annette Trumel. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 10, 2004. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Jesse - Ethan Hawke Celine - Julie Delpy Book Store Manager - Vernon Dobtcheff Journalist #1 - Louise Lemoine Torres Journalist #2 - Rodolphe Pauly Waitress - Marianne Plasteig Philippe - Diabolo Man at Grill - Albert Delpy Woman in Courtyard - Marie Pillet
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