The best sequels aren't encores so much as continuations, extending and deepening a story—or, better still, evoking memories of the original in a meaningful way. Even so, the idea of a follow-up to Richard Linklater's bracingly romantic 1995 all-nighter Before Sunrise seems like a terrible miscalculation: Why spoil the bittersweet ambiguity of what happens after the two lovers part ways at a Vienna train station, hastily promising to meet again six months later? And yet nine years later, as the opening shots linger in anticipation of their Paris reunion in Before Sunset, it's hard to keep from welling up. The sensation is like skipping from the first act in Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, where lovers also part at a station, to the final scene, when they've long since moved on with their lives but experience that fresh rush of emotion all over again. Little beyond a few pleasantries are exchanged between them, but the audience can safely guess that if they said what they were thinking, they'd both confess that neither has felt love as strongly since.
The ideal way for people to see Before Sunset is to have seen the earlier film on opening day and not revisited it since, so the original rendezvous syncs up perfectly with the faded (though still vivid) imprint of the characters' memories. In Paris to promote a teasingly autobiographical novel about the affair, American author Ethan Hawke serendipitously ends a European book-signing tour at his former lover Julie Delpy's favorite bookstore. In the hour or so before Hawke has to catch a plane back to the U.S., the two resume the impassioned and literate conversation they began nine years earlier. The more time they spend together, the more intimate the discussion gets, including some heartbreaking revelations about why they didn't reunite and how they really feel about each other.
When Hawke first beckoned Delpy off the train in Before Sunrise, he lured her with a half-sincere, half-smoke-and-mirrors speech about how she should take a chance or else feel some doubt in her romantic future. Though it seemed like a harmless come-on at the time, those words carry an achingly ironic resonance in Before Sunset, when the renewed pleasure they take in each other's company only deepens their regret about where life has steered them. Shooting in long takes, Linklater and his actors (who get co-screenwriting credit) allow the conversation to curlicue effortlessly from literate banter to matters of the heart, and sometimes to places in between. And, in the spirit of the original, Linklater closes with one of the best endings of its kind since George Romero's Martin.