By Jon Warner
Back in college I got a film recommendation from a very dear friend of mine. She talked admiringly about a film that she said was basically, “two people talking and walking around the whole movie”. Before Sunrise is that…..and oh so much more. I think back on that initial viewing and recall the freshness and genuineness that the film spoke to. It was a film that held me in its romantic grip like very few films ever have. Throughout the last 20 years, this work and it’s sequels have come to gather additional weight and impact with the passing of time. As the real-time examination of a long-term bond between two people has played out, The Before Trilogy is one of the most significant film achievements of its time. In many ways, I admire each film of the trilogy for different reasons. I have passed on a love for these films to others…..my sister loves them and my wife adores them as well. In fact, both my wife and I have seen the last 2 films in theaters together, and have continually held each of these films dearly to us. If pressed into a decision, I must say that the original, Before Sunrise, is my favorite and can stand alone all by itself. It is a fully self-contained work that doesn’t necessarily need the other two films for immediate impact. Additional resonances are and insights are to be found when discussing the trilogy, but this review will focus specifically on Before Sunrise alone.
Before Sunrise is a film about talking and listening, of profound discussions of life, death, and love, and a relationship that is born, blossoms, and within the context of this film alone……closes within 24 hours. We’re introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian, on a train in Europe. She is reading a book in her seat, but is bothered by the arguing couple next to her. She picks up her stuff and moves to the back of the car and sits down on the seat across from a guy named Jesse (Ethan Hawke). He and she notice each other. He strikes up a conversation with her. This conversation will last for something like the next 24 hours. They flirt and make small talk. Then, suddenly, he convinces her to get off the train with him in Vienna where he needs to catch a flight back home, instead of her continuing on to Paris, which is her final destination. They both realize the next day they will part ways, but in between they take a spontaneous chance to see what happens. They spend the entire day, night, and next morning talking, listening, and falling in love. When he asks her to go with him to Vienna, there is no risk to him. He’s got nothing to lose. Celine’s acceptance of the improvised moment, to leave the train with Jesse, is her leap of faith to accept his trust without question. Their timid and awkward first moments after getting off the train soon lead to letting their guards down, to sharing their inner beliefs and dreams, leading to undeniably romantic passages of the film as they realize they might be each other’s soul mates. Linklater’s technique doesn’t artificially trump-up the romance or create a voyeuristic sense of preoccupation for the audience. These two are awkward with each other and don’t always have the right answers. But we feel that Celine and Jesse earn each other’s trust because they are generally interested in each other as equals. This is all done through patience and observing human nature as it unfolds: jokes to break the ice, tentatively giving complements to the other, being respectful of the situation and not taking advantage of the other.
Filmed in Vienna, the movie has a gorgeous atmosphere. This is a film that you just want to linger with. You don’t want it to end. There is a charge between these two people and you root for them incessantly. A few scenes in particular highlight the chemistry between the leads. I love the scene on the trolley-car that is a 6-minute conversation done in one take. Celine and Jesse are asking each other questions to get to know one another, and their conversation is funny and observant, and you almost don’t realize it’s one take because it’s effortless. The next brilliant scene is after they’ve picked up a record in the record store and they go into the listening booth to play it. Linklater’s camera focuses on both their faces at the same time as they listen to the yearning, romantic ballad with the romantic tension literally boiling over. They both want to look at each other during the song. But every time Jesse looks at Celine, she looks at him and he turns away, and vice versa as they avoid making eye contact out of embarrassment. This scene aches with a tenderness that is unbearably real.
Much of the film is devoted to just following them through the city as they wander. Along the way, they encounter a few people who almost act as signposts for their relationship as it matures. First they meet a few goofy actors on the bridge who seem to hardly regard them as a couple at all. Later, a palm reader recognizes their connection and leaves them with these words, “You need to resign yourself to the awkwardness of life”. Then they encounter a poet, who leaves Celine and Jesse with a beautifully written poem (“…….sweetcakes and milkshakes”), giving weight to their evening and connection. Finally, the bartender, recognizing that they are living the most important night of their lives, gives them a bottle of wine to share. As their connection increases, so does the awareness of their connection become apparent to others. Sure enough, their youthful, idealized romanticism is wrapped up in living for the moment without much regard for the consequences. They don’t want this moment to end. Their relationship seems to exist outside of time itself. Yet in the morning they have to face tough decisions and end up in a hasty pact to meet again in that same spot. We could surmise what might happen. As the film reaches its ending, it’s clear that the romantic optimism for life that they share gets in the way of practical reality and of protecting themselves from painful separation. It’s this tug-of-war between romanticism and reality that sets up the heartbreaking ending. My lasting impression I take from the film is that it encompasses that point in life where one wonders what one’s life “might be like”. Celine and Jesse are constantly attempting to answer this question.
This film wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for the winning performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, giving life and depth to the film and commanding our attention for the entire length of it with their wit, charm, and infectious zeal. Jesse is a boyish, sensitive and articulate young man, who is hopelessly romantic and also sometimes corny. Celine is smart, sentimental, determined, and cultured. Hawke and Delpy nail these personalities with such consistency, you feel like there is little difference between the actors and the characters they play. Linklater’s script, co-written with Kim Krizan, is knowing and honest about life as a twenty-something, and most of Celine and Jesse’s discussions encompass not pop culture or current events, but timeless things like memories, fears, and desires, making the film far less dated than it could be today. At the end of the film, after Celine and Jesse are no longer in Vienna, a melancholic coda comes over the film, recapping through images the places they went through the previous day. Only now with the sobering realization that Celine and Jesse have parted, there is an intense feeling of bittersweet loss. It is a downbeat ending, not leaving us with a sense of optimism that things will work out as they plan but forever grateful we witnessed such beauty. It all begs the question of whether it’s better to have loved and lost (or parted) than to have never loved at all.