I am a sucker for love stories. I love romantic comedies. I love stories about love at first sight. I love two people finding and falling for each other, against all odds. Similarly, I’m a sucker for Richard Linklater, who may be my favorite working filmmaker, and possibly my all-time favorite. His films capture the experience of being, well, a person better than just about anyone else–whether this is the surreal ennui of art city life in Slacker, or adolescence in Dazed and Confused, or growing up in Boyhood, or simply being anything at all in Waking Life.
Before Sunrise chronicles the brief courtship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), as they meet on a train in the middle of Europe, and spend a night together in Vienna. That is the plot of Before Sunrise, as is common with Linklater films. Of course, because the film has no narrative thrust doesn’t mean we don’t see our characters change, or that they don’t experience incident. Rather, Before Sunrise is a gentle song of two strangers divulging their philosophies on life, love, their fears, and gradually falling for each other.
Before Sunrise is not so much a love story as the film is a story about love. We don’t just watch two good looking people experience conflicts that hinder their romance, while overcoming the odds. Instead, we see two strangers encounter one another, and grow into one another. The only real conflict is that they’re simply stopping en route to elsewhere. Jesse, the brash, opinionated pessimist in disguise is leaving for America, hoping to discover something in Europe that he couldn’t find until his last evening. Céline, the meek, thoughtful, yet all too reserved romantic is simply going home to Paris, but still agrees to Jesse’s insane proposal of one night in a place that is foreign to both of them. Yet, we follow them anyway.
Much like Jesse and Céline, we intermittently forget that the film is counting down to their inevitable separation. The joy of Before Sunrise–a non-narrative about two relatively unremarkable youngsters just walking around, occasionally interacting with strangers–is that Jesse and Céline are really fun. They’re so honest with each other, and they want to be around each other. Their dynamic is so real and lively that we want to keep following them, a lot like being in those early stages of love.
Now, some may be reticent to call what Jesse and Céline feel for each other “love,” mostly because being cautious or reserved about one’s feelings is fashionable. Linklater passes no such judgement on these characters or these feelings, even when they can be a little insufferable. In fact, Jesse and Céline are somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the depth of their affections early on. This is best illustrated through the film’s early centerpiece, where Jesse and Céline visit a record store, and put on Kath Bloom’s “Come Here.” They don’t speak, the camera never moves away from the same static confines of their listening booth. Instead, they fidget, averting their gaze, quietly smiling off their respective awkwardness. All the while, Kath Bloom sings a gentle, longing ballad, crooning what these budding lovers are afraid to tell one another. The film is rife with these fits of tension, gushing until the final parting scene, where everything comes pouring out in a rush. Linklater isn’t just capturing the moment of being in love, but the mundane collection of details that make for a romantic foundation.
While I’ve seen Before Sunrise in the past, I was struck by something that I hadn’t quite keyed into that makes so much more sense now–possibly because I’m close to the same age as the two leads in the film, at 24–a little older, having lived nonesuch life as cinematic as these two, sadly. I feel something that has always been a lingering anxiety, but that Jesse articulates to Céline. The idea is that the things I say–be they jokes, or review about mid-90s cinema–always sound phony to some degree, and that I could be found out at any moment. With Céline, Jesse doesn’t really care. He is safe with her, and Céline feels the same. Before Sunrise follows a swift connection, as well as the consequences of that connection. Jesse and Céline more or less know they’re in a movie, so they make the most of their time together, learning and falling for each other. And isn’t that all anyone can do, really? All they’re of is each other, no matter how brief their time together may be.
And yet, all the film wants us to see is them together. From the opening shots of a speeding train tracks converging into one another in the blink of an eye, to Jesse and Céline’s parting at the end of the film. Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan not only write a very balanced interplay between the two, but Linklater never really devotes more time to one character over the other–though, an argument could be made that the bookended shots of Céline suggest that the film may be more his, but the film is simply mirroring the cuts from when we’re first introduced to the two at the top of the film. While Vienna is gorgeous, we’re mostly focused on Jesse and Céline, who dominate the center of every shot they’re in. A prime example of this is in the streetcar ride they take as they first arrive in Vienna, which is equal parts inverse of The Graduate, and Jaws, where Linklater never cuts. Instead, he keeps visual momentum by allowing the city to change behind Jesse and Céline, as they talk with one another, without the shot becoming stale.
Listen carefully enough to the film, one finds that we barely hear any sounds that aren’t the voices of our characters. Little from the city or the inhabitants thereof. In fact, at the end of the film, we get a brief montage of all the places in Vienna Jesse and Céline visit during their night together, and even as the sun climbs over this stunning city, they’re empty, and they feel empty, because those spaces are only meaningful when people like Jesse and Céline are around to live within them. That silence surrounding Jesse and Céline becomes especially pronounced without them to fill that void with their deepest musings. This poignant, wistful realization is enough to make one’s eyes well up like a weepy goon.
We’re nearing the end of this review, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I should mention Before Sunrise‘s two sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, each of which are nine years apart from the film before them. Knowing this does not spoil the electricity of that first effortless meeting, and though the successive films are also worth revisiting, special and insightful in their own ways, nothing feels like that first time. And when we have to step away, one can’t help wanting to rush right back. Before Sunset is as enchanting as films get. Over twenty years old, Richard Linklater’s meditation on falling in love is timeless. Rarely do films so meticulous and thoughtful feel this natural and vital for so long, but it’s a miracle they exist like this at all.