The charms of 'Sunset'

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy keep their momentum.

Art movies don't usually spawn sequels. It's hard to imagine "Son of Citizen Kane" or "Next Year at Marienbad."

Richard Linklater's new release, "Before Sunset," is one of the occasional exceptions to this generally reliable rule. It's a follow-up to the 1995 comedy-drama "Before Sunrise," which I label an art film because it breaks so many rules of screen storytelling. It has only two important characters, takes place in a single night, and - most important - focuses on the centrality of language and conversation to the art of living a civilized, intelligent life.

The sequel does the same, to the lasting credit of Mr. Linklater and his cast, who helped compose the eloquent screenplay.

You can certainly enjoy "Before Sunset" if you haven't seen "Before Sunrise," but a brief recap of the latter can't hurt. The protagonists are Jesse and Celine, an aspiring American writer (Ethan Hawke) and a French graduate student (Julie Delpy) who get acquainted on a European train and disembark in Vienna to take a spontaneous nighttime walk and pursue the mercurial, anything-goes conversation they've started. They part the next morning, leaving us to wonder if they'll wind up together or treasure their memories of the experience without ever meeting again.

"Before Sunset" takes place in Paris, where we learn that Jesse and Celine haven't been in touch since the special night they shared nine years ago. He's now a respected author, and she's an environmental activist who goes to hear him read from his work so she can see how he's turned out.

Sure enough, their conversation again builds immediate momentum. It's not the same as before - they're 30-somethings now, more settled in their lives, less starry-eyed about the future - but they still instinctively believe in words as the ultimate tool for forging emotional and intellectual bonds.

Linklater has the same belief, as he's shown in films as different as the dreamlike "Waking Life," the minimalist "Tape," and last year's "School of Rock." All told, he's one of today's most versatile American filmmakers, and "Before Sunset" finds his light shining as brightly as ever.

Rated R; contains adult language.

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