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Romantic 'Before Sunset' proves an enchanting sequel

We visit both movie sequels and long-lost lovers at our peril. Age and gravity make inroads; personal quirks turn dated; what was supple grace is now forced cheer. Yet we still go back -- to Hit Movie Part 2 or to the One That Got Away -- because we dearly need to believe continuity can somehow trump decay. If they still have it, whispers the voice in our hearts, then so must we.

Sadly, the world doesn't work that way. Except when, very occasionally, it does. Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset" is that rose in the desert, a sequel that improves in every way upon its beloved predecessor and a romance that slowly builds a fire from embers thought dead. It's a movie to cheer lovers and movie lovers alike -- an enchanting midsummer cocktail for two, served at dusk on the banks of the Seine.

It's also 81 minutes of nonstop talk, but if you saw 1995's "Before Sunrise," you already know what you're in for. That film, a box-office misfire that in its video afterlife became a minor Gen-X phenomenon, followed a young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a young Frenchwoman named Celine (Julie Delpy) as they met on a train, disembarked on a whim, and spent a day and an evening walking, talking, and swooning through Vienna. The movie was about nothing more nor less than young love -- about the excitement of meeting someone whose ardor and mindset complement yours -- and its chatty aimlessness was of a piece with Linklater's 1991 breakthrough "Slacker." The movie drove some viewers to weep with happiness while driving others crazy from boredom.

In any event, it's not like the world was clamoring for a sequel. Yet, nine years later, here are Jesse and Celine again, and here are Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy collaborating on a tightly constructed script that plays like a stroll down the street.

Unless you want to get a handle on the conceptual vibe of the new film, you don't really need to have seen the original. As "Sunset" opens, Jesse has gotten a novel out of that long-ago one night stand, and he's in Paris on the last stop of a publicity tour when Celine shows up on the fringes of the bookstore crowd. He brings the event to a close and heads with her to a cafe, which turns into a walk through Paris in late afternoon, which turns into a ride on a tour boat, which turns into several other things but not what you're thinking.

Besides, Jesse is supposed to catch a flight back to the States in two hours, and his publisher's limo hovers out of frame throughout. Unlike the first film, "Sunset" plays out in real time -- in 81 minutes of unfolding getting-to-know-you-(again) conversation -- and its tug of suspense comes not only from that waiting plane but from the need to grab at chance and from the larger looming deadline of age.

The couple are in their early 30s now, still young but beginning to fray. Jesse is leaner and has a forehead crease that Celine likens to a scar; the goatee he once hoped made him look older he now hopes will make him look young. She's puffy about the eyes and a little desperate in them. She works around the world for an environmental group, doing good works but despairing about whether they make a difference. He's a New York intellectual: insightful, self-absorbed, a bit of a jerk.

Their talk covers everything from faulty memories of their fling to the nature of memory itself. They feint and confess: Was Jesse at the arranged rendezvous 8 1/2 years ago in Vienna, the one Celine couldn't make? They tease each other, retreat into self-conscious blather, own up to their current romantic attachments, and slowly burrow deeper into their dissatisfactions -- dissatisfactions that might have been different if . . .

The first film wasn't "about anything" because it was the sound of youthful bravado in full bloom. It was about theory not yet lived, whereas in "Before Sunset," the characters are measuring where their lives are falling short of theory. The new film is actually about everything -- the gap between what one hoped for and what one gets, the subterfuges and compromises of adult life, the ache, and the living with the ache. The dialogue is alive with second-guessing, questioning whether the Buddhists are wrong and desire is healthy, if there's something more to loving than commitment, if you can become your best self at the expense of your most honest self. Eventually Jesse and Celine hit emotional ground zero, and, believe me, it is worth the wait.

The acting is haunting, funny, invisible. Better than invisible, actually. When I saw the first film, I was never able to decide whether it was Jesse or Ethan Hawke I found annoying; in "Before Sunset," the character's pseudo side is still there, but drily and subtly commented on by the actor. Delpy, by contrast, just breaks your heart, especially in a scene where she sings an improvised little nonsense song about lost love that keeps skidding into pain; it's the kind of incandescent found moment that crops up once in a thousand movies.

Linklater's direction is, likewise, so smooth as to be unnoticed, an achievement given that the movie is built on a gimmick. After "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock," and this, maybe it's time to acknowledge that the Texas-born filmmaker is one of the best we have.

Above all, he knows when to pull back. There comes a moment in "Before Sunset," just as Jesse and Celine reach a particular point in their reconnaissance of the heart, that you may find yourself hoping the movie stops right there. You don't expect it to: There are too many threads hanging and a Hollywood star up there on the screen. Yet, miracle of miracles, it does. And the audience -- the one I was with, anyway -- lets out a sigh of pure, shocked happiness.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Before SunsetWritten by: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Starring: Hawke, Delpy
At: Embassy Cinema, Coolidge Corner, Harvard Square
Running time: 81 minutes
Rated: R (language and sexual references)
****

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