Richard Linklater's "Before" films aren't especially contentious, so far as these things go. There seems to be a certain (and certainly deserved) consensus that each chapter of the ongoing love story between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is sublime in its own way, an idea that is sure to be cemented with the release of the brilliant third installment this Friday. Having said that, people have their favorites, and choosing between "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" is as unnecessary as it is deeply revealing of how you regard romance, and / or where you might be in your life at the moment. In this edition of The Great Debate, Film.com's Calum Marsh squares off against No Ripcord's Forrest Cardamenis to determine which "Before Midnight" prequel is best.
Calum Marsh, Team "Sunset": So, Forrest, you know how nobody really likes superhero origin stories because they have to expend a bunch of effort establishing basic character information in sort of boring, expository way? And you know how, like, pretty everybody universally agrees that "Spider-Man 2" and "X2" and, oh, "The Empire Strikes Back" and just about every other sequel is way more interesting than its predecessor? Yeah.
I mean, don't get me wrong: I like "Before Sunrise" a lot. But I like in sort of a dorky, way-back-when sorta way, as though I'm mostly just nostalgic for the youth contained in those performances. It has a certain energy and originality simply by virtue of being the first film a series that, now especially, has a lot of built-in history. It's a strong, sturdy foundation. But the thing is, they build a better and more compelling film on top of that foundation: it's called "Before Sunset", and it's a quantum leap over "Sunrise" for many, many reasons, the first and most important of which is its maturity. By nature of its design—it's a movie about growth, after all—"Before Sunset" is a more mature than "Before Sunrise", and it uses that sense of maturity as its central theme and obsession. The first film doesn't have that luxury.
Forrest Cardamenis, Team "Sunrise": If we're going to play that game, you'll probably also agree that the third film in Superhero franchises tend to be not so good. "Spider-Man 3" was laughable, "X3" was a mess, and that Christopher Nolan film last year was an abomination formally and politically. I don't know if you've seen "Before Midnight" yet, but it's proof that this trilogy is no superhero franchise (the only proof, obviously). I'll ignore the fact that you might have just called "Toy Story 2" better than the first.
"Before Sunset" is certainly a more ambitious, more "mature" film. It's about love in a practical sense as much as an emotional one. It's about change and not just a brief moment. But, paradoxically, that's what makes "Sunrise" the better film. Where "Sunset" gets caught up, particularly in the beginning, trying to figure out how to address its more complex themes, "Sunrise" leaps confidently into its idea as soon as Jesse asks Celene to get off the train with him. It's far purer, an uninhibited and joyful evocation of love. Films like "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" before "Sunset" and "Certified Copy" after it address many of the same ideas, but I can't think of a film that captures the overwhelming joy of pure, immediate love better than "Before Sunrise." It captures exactly the kind of moment we all want to have in our own lives and when it comes to an end, it's as hard for us to let go as it is for them. Our moment is their moment, and it's a doubtless love we get so caught up in we can barely think about it going away. "Sunset" challenges us a bit more, but is there anything more fulfilling than the love that "Sunrise" leaves us with?
Calum, Team "Sunset": Well, I suppose this is where we depart most significantly then: I don't believe "Before Sunrise" is a film about love at all, let alone a love that's fulfilling or immediate or pure. In fact I might propose that "Before Sunset" is not a film about love, either, though the last film in the trilogy might qualify. This has been noted elsewhere, but "Before Sunrise" is a film about sudden and invigorating infatuation. Not to trivialize the effect--because I do think it's a wonderful film--but it is, in essence, about a memorable crush. I mean, call it "love at first sight" if you must, but I think "Before Sunset" makes clear that their night together nearly a decade prior left an indelible mark on their lives not so much because they have been in love with one another since, but because the intensity of their infatuation made them wonder about the kind of love they might have found together had they somehow made a relationship out of the moment.
That's precisely why I think "Before Sunset" is so much more essential: it recasts the vitality and youthfulness of the first film as having life-long implications, transforming a bittersweet story about a night of improvised passion, in retrospect, into a very sad experience that in a sense has prevented them from feeling truly happy or satisfied since. You're dead on that "Before Sunrise" captures overwhelming joy, but it's a joy that "Before Sunset" reworks into something far more substantial and, I think, more resonant.
Forrest, Team "Sunrise": I don't think that necessarily means that it's not about love, though. I agree with almost all of what you're saying, that the mark that one night left on them has made them wonder if they could be happier in their current relationships and with their life than they are now, but I think that only confirms that it was, to use your words, love at first sight. No crush sticks with you 10 years later, makes you fly to another continent, and question everything about your life. There's something more there. And that's what "Sunrise" captures so well.
I think about the room where they listen to music, and they nervously glance around the room, afraid to make eye contact but always trying to catch the other one looking at them. In that moment, it's clear that it's more than just a passing infatuation. Delpy's and Hawke's performances keep that nervous energy throughout the film, all of their conversations display such connection and importance, that you can see those life-long implications happening without the assistance of the sequel. "Sunrise" takes off right away, but what it adds to "Sunset" doesn't really kick in until about half an hour or an hour into the film, and although it's more substantial -- and this could be my own youth speaking -- I can't think of anything more resonant or pure than a night of unreserved love, as I believe it is.
Calum, Team "Sunset": I'm going to grab the low-hanging fruit here and call you out on the "nervous energy" of those performances. A clear mark for me of the superiority of "Sunset" is that these two actors--both of whom I think are among the finest of their generational cohort--are frankly only really great in the later film, in which they're bringing more than a decade of acting experience to the table that they didn't have the first time around.
Delpy, to be fair, had already delivered some of the most compelling performances of her career by the time 1995 rolled around, but not everybody has the benefit of working with Godard as a teenager. But I think Hawke, especially, really came into his own in the late 90s and early 2000s, when he started growing into adulthood and drifting away from the brooding adolescence that had defined him as a young star. I actually think he's still getting better--he delivered an almost astonishingly serious performance in the horror film "Sinister" last year, of all things--but in any case he's an actor whose work benefits from experience and age. "Sunrise" certainly had the charm of two young and vital performers finding their voice together, which, as you said, grants them a kind of energy that's infectious to watch. But it's amateur hour compared to the more measured and subtle turns at the center of "Sunset".
Forrest, Team "Sunrise": Hawke is certainly better in "Sunset," yes, but the chemistry of "Sunrise" still implies many of the consequences that "Sunset" makes explicit. You can see the night leaving a mark on them that will stick with them for all their time apart, whether it be the promised six months or almost an entire decade. "Sunset" makes this explicit, and it works well both because it's a well-written film on its own, but also because it has the benefit of bringing in characters that already had a chance encounter with "the one" that I'm sure most viewers dream about.
That's the thing about "Sunrise," is that it plays both like the worst good dream and the best bad dream at the same time. The bleak optimism at the end encapsulates everything we want from a chance infatuation. It's spontaneous, it's visceral, and you can see it lead to something more. "Sunset" expands on these themes and what they mean 10 years down the road, yes, but in doing so, it also lacks the magic that "Sunrise" provides. "Sunrise" is like going abroad and eating the best meal of your life, and "Sunset" is topping it off with your favorite dessert. You love your dessert, but you know how it tastes. That meal, on the other hand, is something you'll never stop talking about and that you'll always want to try just one more time.
Calum, Team "Sunset": Allow me to invoke Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross": "Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains." I think you've touched upon the one quality I'll admit is most valuable to "Sunrise", which is the "bleak optimism" of the ending. That film ends with hope left in suspension, and what's at once wonderful and frustrating about it is the lack of resolution. We're left in doubt about their reunion. And as Hawke himself observes of his novel at the beginning of "Sunset", it's up to the audience to decide whether they'll ever meet again: romantics assume they will while cynics assume they won't.
I appreciate the ambiguity, which was clearly deliberate. But that's a bit of gimmick, isn't it? Forcing us to wonder? "Sunset" makes the adult decision of providing an answer--which, sure, it maybe less inherently magical, but it's truer to life. Life does go on. Decisions do have consequences. And seeing those consequences realized is central to what makes "Sunset" such a bittersweet follow-up. It suggests, from the outset, that the cynics were right, because they never did meet up six months later. But then the film itself works hard to rebuild romance from the wreckage of those earlier emotions, which have both faded and grown over time. I think that's a much more difficult, and in its own way more commendable, task to undertake.
Forrest, Team "Sunrise": You can call it gimmicky, but "Sunset" essentially does the same thing by not letting either the cynics or the romantics be right. A familial death arises as a preventative factor, so it's hard to call the cynics right when Celene planned on going, but you can't call the romantics correct because she couldn't make it. It's another instance of "Sunset" explicating the subtext of "Sunrise." It goes on to do its own thing, as you mention, with "rebuilding romance from the wreckage," as you nicely put it, but it takes a while to get there. "Sunrise" gets there right away.
I can't argue that it's more difficult and more commendable, but I think "Sunset" works better on paper in that regard while "Sunrise" works far better than it ought to on paper. It doesn't try to do too much. I should concede that "Sunset" has its own wonderful ending, but by the time it gets there, it almost feel like their adventure is just beginning. On one hand, that's what makes "Sunset" so great, is that it looks at the realistic, unromantic aspects of their situation, but it's also why I'll always gravitate toward "Sunrise." There's plenty to be said for the more applicable themes of "Sunset," but I can't imagine a replacement for the purity of love/infatuation that "Sunrise" offers. Maybe that makes me the romantic and you the cynic, but I have a feeling we're both okay with that.