I suspect that Before Sunset is getting such mixed reviews because it will mean very little to viewers who have not reached the stage of life portrayed in it. To my mind, this is not a romance. Rather, it's a very frank look at how we end up with life partners.
For that reason, it is an important film for twentysomethings to see and is a gift to them from Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy.
The death of Celine's grandmother brings up two issues: the role of chance and that of our responsibilities to ourselves. Jesse knows Celine missed their planned meeting in Vienna because her grandmother died. But this does not prevent his pained question on the boat, something to the effect of 'Why weren't you there?' He is referring to rotten luck, the dark side of fate that is capable of robbing us of what we most desire. What were the odds that her grandmother would have died within those few days? Tiny. But it led to them not meeting again.
However, Celine still chose to not meet Jesse. Yes, her family may not have understood had she skipped the funeral. But life is for the living, and her grandmother wouldn't have known if she hadn't been there. So Celine must take responsibility for the fact that their lives didn't include each other.
Another precious dialog occurs when they discuss why they didn't exchange addresses or phone numbers nine years ago. Celine says it was because they were young and overly optimistic and assumed they'd meet plenty of people with whom they would connect equally well. Are the twentysomethings listening?
Celine expresses a problem many face when she explains why she prefers to have a boyfriend who is away much of the time: she feels suffocated when he is around too long. But she has been depressed since reading Jesse's book because she misses the kind of total intimacy they briefly shared and realizes there is no easy solution to this dilemma. One cannot simultaneously be intimate and distant, and all relationships involve finding a compromise.
Jesse's marriage is an ordinary one. He married his wife because she was smart, pretty, and pregnant, and marriage is about commitment. But even on his way to the church he was thinking of Celine. Are we being warned of the danger of staying in a mediocre relationship?
He says his wife and he are now like coworkers in a preschool, a description that will ring true with many viewers.
So is the lesson that you should throw caution to the wind and sacrifice all for someone who thrills your heart for a day? Before Sunset offers no such easy solution, as Jesse and Celine admit they may have discovered they didn't like each other after all.
As I see it, the primary role of film is to give voice to emotions and aspects of life we all know to be true but are not acceptable to discuss in polite society. In this regard Before Sunset excels. I can't help but think that when Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy decided to do this brief film it was not about profit at all-they simply had some things they thought people should hear, and this was their gift to the public.
If you have just opened this page to decide whether you want to rent this film, I recommend you not read ANYTHING about it. See the film with no preconceptions and discover what it means to you. As each viewer will bring his own life experience and beliefs to it, you may perceive a different story than other viewers. For me, it is one of the most memorable of films.
After you have viewed it, come back to see which reviewers saw the same story you did.
Some reviewers have panned this film for being a lame and predictable ghost story. I don't think that's what it is, possibly because I don't believe in ghosts but do believe in the power of past events in our minds. It occurred to me early on that Ruby may not be real, but as I had read nothing about the story before seeing it I maintained this as a hypothesis rather than as a fact.
As I watched the film I concluded that the protagonist was delusional. The memories jarred by his visit to Genoa, by staying in his boyhood home, were just too painful--the father who was distant to the point of nonexistence, the love he had lost as a teen, the guilt he felt related to Sylvia's death. Most of us can look at past events and see ones we wish had turned out differently, but these events go beyond that. These events he has repressed and they have held him prisoner. Ruby is a creation of his tortured mind, a way to try to reconnect with Sylvia.
And it worked for him. He saves her from drowning in the same river, they talk, she tells him she loved him, they make love; things that would have happened had he not taken her into the water years earlier. Things he needs to have happen, even if only in his mind.
In the closing scenes he is not surprised to see she has disappeared. He accepts that and is ready to begin healing.
Of course, he could also just be dreaming and will soon awaken. But that ending was overused long ago.
This film could have been great but for a few fatal flaws. Firstly, we don't have enough elucidation of Sam and Alex's relationship or their characters before their move to L.A. We therefore don't really know them or how bonded they are to each other. How long have they been together? They're talking a marriage date, so it's probably been for a few years. If so, it makes subsequent events less believable.
Secondly, having grown up in LA, gone away to med school in Chicago, and moved back to LA myself, I find Alex's character unbelievable. While the stereotype may be that all Californians are amoral hedonists and everyone else in the US is an uptight Puritan, I can assure you that is not the case.
So the notion that Alex never met a smooth-talking seducer before she came to LA is beyond silly. And to portray her as basically throwing away a long-term relationship a few days after meeting a pop singer is to describe someone who would be unlikely to have the commitment it takes to get into med school, never mind finish a double degree program. Yes, I know that every so often we meet someone who really turns us on, but I just don't buy the character's behavior. If she has some areas of ongoing, deep dissatisfaction with Sam that would explain it, this should have been developed. As it is, Alex behaves in ways that, at least in my opinion, she would only if she had become mentally unhinged, as she has turned her back on everything she knows and has worked for.
Thirdly, while it is clear that Sam finds his mother's lifestyle repugnant, he is never shown to express the reasons for them to Alex. He makes a vague allusion to them to Sarah, but it is not believable that he would not have discussed this with Alex at some point in their relationship. If her response was, "Sam, you're so rigid. I think promiscuity is cool," this is something the viewer should be aware of.
Fourthly, Ms. Cholodenko has shown cowardice in not providing an ending. Yes, I know the viewer can imagine their own, but the film simply feels unfinished as it is. She should have had the courage to share her view of subsequent events with us.
Unlike some reviewers, I find Sam's character believable. Having grown up in a house where there were no rules and people sought only to please themselves, he has fled to the opposite coast of the country and chosen a career helping others. He is very attracted to his fellow resident but resists it because of his commitment to Alex. I hate to sound square, but that's how healthy adults behave. Whether that commitment will keep him with Alex is doubtful, as both their emotional and physical relationships seem mediocre, but at least he's trying.
When I think of how great this film could have been, I'm saddened. But Ms. Cholodenko is young and I'm optimistic that she has many better films in her future.