Richard Linklater’s captivating romance Before Sunset is such a complete triumph–warm, wise, brilliantly executed–that I have no trouble believing it will end up being regarded as the best American film of 2004, bar none, by scads of critics including this one. Indeed, the movie, which stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in a nine-years-later continuation of the story begun in 1994’s Before Sunrise, has already garnered the kinds of raves that send some movies automatically rocketing toward the Oscars. So how come Before Sunset opened to respectable, but unspectacular, earnings?

While not wanting to make too much of box office numbers, I also don’t want to avoid the fact that this terrific movie poses certain challenges for reviewers. Critics tend to assume that any really good movie that gets launched with a spate of unstinting raves will reach its deserved audience almost automatically. But that’s not always true.

Certain films, even the most enjoyable and acclaimed, enter theaters facing obstacles that have more to do with the vagaries of marketing than with what’s on screen. Among the challenges confronting Before Sunset is that it’s a sequel to an indie film that relatively few people saw. (Seeing Before Sunrise is not at all a requisite for enjoying the new film, though it is definitely an experience-enhancer.) Additionally, the movie features actors who aren’t mega-stars while its ads make it look like a standard-issue romantic comedy, a situation that results in a curious double bind: Where indie-oriented viewers may assume the film is more formula than edge, mainstream audiences aren’t likely to rush to small-scaled rom-com lacking the likes of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

I’d venture that moviegoers on both sides of this misperception are losing out, but it’s perhaps more a shame for the indie crowd, and I would introduce Before Sunset to them with the following observation. From the late ’80s onward, the boom in Amerindie filmmaking–the much-publicized phenomenon centered on the Sundance Film Festival–was perhaps most notable for the relative paucity of great filmmakers it produced. Thousands of films and scads of would-be auteurs vied for the laurels, but more 15 years on, American cinema ended up gaining only a handful of major directors. The names include Soderbergh, Tarantino and Linklater. For my money, the latter has proved–and goes on proving–to be the most interesting and accomplished of the lot.

Linklater’s recent output alone deserves some type of prize for indie-spirited audacity. Three years ago he released not one but two of the year’s most pleasingly innovative films, the enthralling theater-derived chamber drama Tape and the extraordinary philosophico-cartoon opus Waking Life (which beat out Shrek in many critics polls for best animated film). Then last year, venturing a major-studio backed comedy with the deliriously winning School of Rock, he turned out what was easily 2003’s sharpest and most expertly crafted Hollywood entertainment.

With Before Sunset, the Texas-based filmmaker returns to the indie ranks as well as to an earlier phase of his work. Linklater followed his 1991 debut, the startlingly eclectic college-town satire Slacker (a term it inserted into the national lexicon), with Dazed and Confused, another large-ensemble Lone Star comedy. For purposes of rut-avoidance, it was ingeniously apt that his third feature leapt to Europe and a far more compact premise. Before Sunrise was mounted with the understated classicism of a film like Brief Encounter, yet it was as fresh and free-spirited as its backpacker protagonists, an American guy and a French girl who spend a single night talking and falling in love as they wander around Vienna. Though 20-somethings Jesse and Celine parted at daybreak promising they will meet again in six months, the film–with its wonderfully garrulous script and effervescent acting–felt like a happy one-off, an experience as complete as it was intoxicating.

Before Sunset, then, is the sequel to a movie that wasn’t planned for a sequel and really didn’t need one. And yet, what a pleasure to have the heartfelt intelligence of the first film extended to a second. The story opens in Paris on a late-summer afternoon at Shakespeare & Co., the little bookstore facing Notre Dame. Jesse (Hawke), looking chipper if a bit haggard, is on the last stop of a European book tour, promoting a roman a clef about that long-ago night in Vienna. He looks up, and there in an alcove is his pseudo-fiction’s blonde muse. No crashing chords or dolly-shots announce their reunion. Just a couple of diffident smiles and an invitation by Celine (Delpy) to go grab some coffee. Jesse only has a short while until his plane back to the United States.

They step outside and begin to talk as she leads them deeper into the Left Bank in search of a cafe. A lot of jocular kidding spills out of their mouths in these initial moments, but a lot of what is going on is visual too. They are subtly checking each other out, and (as Linklater inserts some brief shots of the two in Before Sunrise) we are also checking them out: not just the characters but the actors as well. Though they’ve aged well, both are thinner and their faces sometimes show the evidence of worry. Especially given the Parisian setting, it’s hard not to think of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, among other films that ask us to look at actors’ faces and think of time’s ceaseless encroachments.

Like its predecessor, Before Sunset is what a friend calls a “walky talky.” But there are differences this time. The first film took place over an entire night and the protagonists interacted with a number of other characters they encountered in their meanderings. This time, the story occurs in real time (i.e., the slightly less than 90 minutes that the characters spend together) and, after they leave the bookstore, there are no other characters. The effect of all this is a greater compression and a greater intimacy. These two have so much to say to each other, yet time is a cruel master; Jesse’s car to the airport stands at the ready.

Did they return to Vienna, as they’d promised, six months after their previous encounter? Naturally, this comes up within moments of their meeting, but I don’t want to spoil it by revealing the answer. Same goes with much of what they subsequently discuss; this all should be discovered in the movie theater. Suffice to say that they were in their early 20s when they met before, and now they are in their early 30s. They have changed in the ways that people inevitably do, and their circumstances have done the same. The world, too, has changed.

The film has a subtly magical way of interweaving conversation on the one hand and space, light, movement and settings on the other. Jesse and Celine wind their way first of all to a cafe. Then they resume walking and meander through a garden near the Seine. Then they hop on a tour boat. When they deboard, then get into a car and head toward her place, the weather, which had been sunny, turns grayer. The car keeps going.

At every change of scene, their conversation changes, deepens. At first, they’re teasing each other, having fun and obliquely trying to discover if the spark of nine years before is still there. After that, it’s as if every new movement induces them to peel off another layer of their defenses. They talk about their work and what matters to them. They talk about Vienna, about the different perceptions of men and women. When they edge into talking about their hurts and disappointments, you realize that the spark –for whatever it’s now worth–is still flickering, and that this movie may feature the best sustained duologue since My Dinner with Andre.

The key to this conversation’s attraction–and thus the movie’s–is this: It makes you think of your own life. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether you’ve ever been to Vienna or Paris. Everyone has a past; everyone has skirted love and made mistakes; everyone has dreams that are fundamentally lashed to both regrets and hopes. Before Sunset takes you on a voyage into all this, into some very private areas that are also the world’s property. The film’s richness and beauty are a function of its artistry; its profundity comes from the fact that it is your story too.

Linklater wrote the film’s screenplay with Hawke and Delpy, and their collaboration infuses every remarkable moment. Before Sunset is one of those happy movies that looks so easy and natural, as if the actors just happened to be wandering down this street with the camera running, just two people talking and laughing–an effect that comes, of course, only with months of painstaking rewriting, honing and rehearsal. In any case, these two performances are as good as it gets in American movies; both deserve all the year-end awards they’re likely to win.

When Before Sunrise came out, it drew comparisons to the films of Eric Rohmer–heady compliments for a young director out of Austin, Tex. Before Sunset ups the ante even further; indeed, in uniting the best qualities of Amerindie and smart European films, it seems to suggest the renewal of cinema itself (I regret to point out that no French film in years has had the charm of this one). Its pay-offs are as striking as they are unexpected. While I won’t reveal the story’s ending–beyond that it involves a guitar and a Nina Simone CD–it’s about as perfect as could be imagined, a coup that makes you wonder which is more miraculous: the heart’s turnings, or cinema’s ability to capture them. In the end, there’s no difference; the miracle happens in the fusion of feeling and expression. EndBlock