Before Sunrise (1995): United States/Austria/Switzerland – directed by Richard Linklater
Rated R by the MPAA – contains language and some mild sexual content
I confess to not being overly familiar with the work of Richard Linklater. The only other features of his that I have seen are Waking Life, an interesting and philosophical rotoscoped tale, though too heady to be emotionally involving, and Tape, a slight but interesting film experiment. With Before Sunrise Linklater displays a great deal of maturity while crafting a film about two young people.
The film also manages to do something rare; each scene, individually, is underwhelming. When placed together, however, the sum of the whole is much greater than the individual parts. This is not a movie to watch on television, or piece by piece as the fancy strikes.
The story is sparse, but necessarily so. An opening sequence introduces a pretty, young French girl by the name of Celine (Julie Delpy). She’s riding a train across Europe, heading back to Paris, but an unruly German couple interrupts her respite. Moving toward the back of the train, away from the noise, she sits near an untidy American youth.
They strike up an innocuous conversation. His name is Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and he’s traveling to Vienna from Madrid hoping to take the cheapest flight back to the States. Their conversation progresses deeper as they ride. When they get to Vienna he poses her a question: will she get off with him and stroll the streets and talk through the night before his morning flight?
If she said no there would be no movie, and, as he points out, she would wonder for the rest of her life what might have happened if she had gotten off the train with him. Together they wander Vienna, occasionally meeting interesting characters, but generally merely talking to each other. They discuss life and love, their pasts and past relationships, and share whatever philosophical questions come to mind.
Theirs is a pure relationship, in a unique way. They realize they will only have this one day together and grab the opportunity to briefly and intensely get to know the other person. They have no secrets that need to be kept, for they will never have the chance to be irritated with or hate the other person, no chance to use personal knowledge to hurt them later in life. They have the “now,” and that is all. The entire film is a brief portrait of the initial stage of love, an intense period where two people are heavily enamored with each other.
The film remains cynical about the possibility of a lasting, loving relationship between two people. As Jesse and Celine note, if they were to stay together they would eventually spot the faults inherent within the other, and their love would grow stale and their relationship would turn spiteful. They both recognize the gift that this one night is, however hard it may be to part company in the morning. I can’t agree with the film’s cynicism, however; love eventually moves past the “falling in love” stage and changes, and if a couple can’t evolve together (instead expecting a perpetual state of butterflies in the stomach) their relationship may be doomed.
Before Sunrise is not cynical about love as a whole. Linklater appreciates the beauty of people falling in love, marking it with a lovely score and gorgeous Viennese scenery. It helps that the characters are intelligent and thoughtful, ensuring that their conversations carry a degree of both uncertainty and knowledge. They have some experience with life, and the ability to extrapolate how their experience will unfold as they age, but they are young enough to remain full of questions.
The film moves slowly as the couple talks until the morning. The inevitable conclusion is difficult, but strikes a strong emotional cord. At no point does their relationship come off as cheesy or unconvincing. My only real complaints lie with Hawke, who occasionally is a bit forceful in his angst-ridden philosophies, and some of the film’s cynicism. I am glad the film ends as it does, though I believe there is more to hope for regarding lasting relationships. I can imagine some audiences not appreciating the slow pace and the extreme reliance on dialogue, and some people might find the philosophical discussions too pretentious. I enjoyed the entire film, and especially appreciated how the individual scenes combine to create a compelling picture of two young people and the only day they will ever spend together (at least until the highly-regarded sequel, which I have not yet seen).