At the beginning of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse answers questions at a book signing in Paris. He doesn’t realize it, but Celine (Julie Delpy), the radiant Frenchwoman with whom he spent one enchanted evening in Vienna some nine years ago in Sunset’s predecessor Before Sunrise, watches him from a corner. Jesse shares an idea he has for a novel that takes place during the span of a single pop song: A thirtysomething father watches his five-year-old daughter climb onto a table to dance, and he’s transported back to the night he lost his virginity at the age of 16. He sees his girlfriend dance to the same song on the roof of her car and realizes then that “inside every moment is another moment happening simultaneously,” that “time is a lie.”
As Jessie waxes philosophical about the illusion of time, Linklater cuts to images of Hawke and Delpy from the previous film, moving between then and now with seamless elegance. These flashbacks make it clear that Jesse is partly right and partly wrong. This moment in the bookstore does indeed contain the earlier moment inside of it; it is pregnant with the past. Though he’s never been the sort of director to indulge in too much temporal trickery, Linklater’s well aware of the power montage has to twist our perception of time: A series of cuts, fades, and dissolves can compress and extend time or take us forward or backward through it. Despite the flashbacks, Before Sunset mostly unfolds in a series of long, sequential takes that give the impression of real time. Here, the most pointed cutting in the film—and, perhaps, Linklater’s entire oeuvre—doesn’t transport us back to that earlier moment so much as it draws our attention to the nine years that stand between then and now. Hawke’s weathered face and Delpy’s thin, knowing beauty are physical evidence of the time that’s passed. When he finally notices Celine, Jesse becomes distracted, and he seems less sure of himself. Her presence betrays an irrefutable truth: time isn’t a lie after all. Read Chris Wisniewski on Before Sunset.