Movie review: “Before Sunrise” (1995)

“This friend of mine, he had a kid, and it was a home birth, so he was there, helping out and everything. But he said that, at that profound moment of birth…uh, he’s watching his child experiencing life for the first time, trying to take his first breath, and all he could think about was he was looking at something that was going to die some day. He just couldn’t get it out of his head. And I think that is so true, you know? Everything is so finite. But don’t you think that’s what makes, um, our time and specific moments so important?”

I’m going to break sharply with structural decorum and implied spoiler policy in my discussion of Richard Linklater’s once in my lifetime Before Sunrise – because this is, in spite of what the title might suggest, a discussion rather than a review – by beginning at its end. If you are a first time viewer who, unlike me, believes that such spoilers might, indeed, ruin their appreciation of what is the most breathlessly authentic screen romance I have seen in my lifetime of attempts, please read no further and, instead, reinvest whatever time you might’ve spent otherwise occupied finding the most painless way possible to stream the movie immediately. I won’t take it personally. Knowing the end of Before Sunrise is in no meaningful way detrimental to the experience of what comes before it, in part because that experience is so full of surprises and delightful digressions, but also because the young couple themselves acknowledge and even nervously anticipate it. This film is a painstakingly rendered snapshot of a transcendent feeling, of young love caught like a lightning bug, and even the unlucky among us who have never experienced anything close to what Jesse and Celine do on their enchanted June day together in Vienna can probably recall capturing a firefly in their cupped hands one lovely summer night as a kid. You want to keep it even as you don’t want to hurt it, and know that even allowing the slightest opening for light and air is, in effect, providing a potential escape route. There is nothing quite so amazing in life as realizing that you really click with another person, nor as simultaneously energizing and terrifying as improvising your first tentative steps toward extending that moment to its fullest extent, be that logical or ill. 

The end I describe here is certainly not the end for these characters, or even necessarily their beautiful, if abbreviated, half day’s romance, which will live on in their memories as perpetual, perhaps contextually cold, comfort during the six months until they have agreed, with not a little heedless youthful verve, to reunite on the same Vienna train platform from which they both began in earnest and ended their time together. That period lasted maybe twelve hours, maybe a few minutes more, but felt like the whole world, one in which they were too occupied with the moment to exchange contact information, or even full names. You can tell their last kiss lingered in the air before following them, like a vapor trail, and appears to subtly affect Jesse’s trudge away from the platform and the girl of his dreams and off, instead, toward the bus that will take him to the airport and, from there, back home to America. He is crestfallen and resigned, but at least Celine agreed to meet him again. In truth, all he really did was broach the topic after an evening and overnight full of avoidance both deft and clumsy, and they made hasty, desperate plans. Passing anonymous commuters – each with their own trajectories but none, one imagines, with a story like his to tell – as he ambles through the station, Jesse is clearly unsettled. Even on the bus, he keeps pausing to steal a backwards glance, almost a tic, as if the orchestra will swell any minute as she somehow reappears in the near-distance. He’s seen too many movies. Celine slowly makes her own way down the empty hallway of a nondescript train very much like the one on which she and Jesse met until she finds an unoccupied compartment. She enters and slumps down, exhausted, gazing impassively out the window for a second or two, before finally closing her eyes. 

Jesse can be a fairly persuasive guy when he wants to, though mostly he is alone and cooped up with far too many thoughts. He has the makings of a quality writer someday, though at present he lacks an editor (I relate). Celine, as we will learn, can be difficult to fully persuade of anything, but she can be swayed, and, despite a lifetime of localized anxieties either tamped down or transmuted into something more constructive, she isn’t ever a prisoner to the power of uncertainty. Both are bright and passionate young adults, articulate and attenuated, self-involved but not selfish, just short of destined to imagine or accomplish great things on a scale much larger than themselves, if not always one as interesting. Celine intuited the possibility of something special in Jesse’s suggestion, at the end of an already engaging, far-ranging conversation spent in the dining car with this perfect stranger, that, instead of bidding him adieu and continuing on to her home in Paris, she should get off their train and spend the day together, talking and exploring Vienna like Bohemians, until he was forced to catch his own flight home the following morning. He doesn’t exactly drive a hard bargain. Nevertheless, how many of you first-timers who read past my initial disclaimer are now making the exact same sort of calculation in your head, whether or not you knew it was a 23-year-old Ethan Hawke who was making the offer? Would you steel up your courage and ask such a thing, whether or not you quite understood the question was being posed to a 23-year-old French beauty, Julie Delpy, who is also smarter than you? Would you find that prospect intimidating, or intoxicating? Whichever side of the equation better fits, would you take the chance if so presented? 

It doesn’t entirely matter where Before Sunrise ends because its beginnings are so simultaneously pedestrian yet miraculous, as these two old souls in appealing young skins actually take and then follow through on the same chance that so many of us have dreamed or daydreamed about in our own lives, or perhaps even quashed in agonizing real time then lived to immediately regret. Sure, the journey begins with clipped smalltalk (“This is a nice bridge,” says Jesse, intently looking at his feet. “Doesn’t this feel weird?” asks Celine, not particularly minding that the answer is yes.) and meandering steps in no discernible direction, but it evolves into an unhurried (well, almost), unadorned, fully realized relationship in ways that feel both appropriately cinematic yet almost wholly organic. Jesse and Celine just click. It is the kind of movie where you are involuntarily immersed in a hypothetical conversation with the principals as they talk, reflexively answering the same questions they ask of one another, or at least giving them serious thought. Along every step of the way, it is possible for the viewer to project him or herself into the role that makes the more sense for their sensibilities, and as we witness, and, especially, feel, them falling in love, we grow to unabashedly love their love story. Vienna, Austria, especially at dusk and then headlong into a mythically starry night, provides a sublime canvas on which that story might be painted, a procession of backdrops each more stunning than its predecessor, as well as an occasional nudge in a new direction when any particular passage has outstayed its welcome. This film will make you want to aimlessly travel Europe in search of butterflies and hot embers until your coffers are empty and your camera is full. If the only purpose of Before Sunrise was to serve as a Vienese travelogue, it would still be well worth seeing. Instead, we have the treat of seeing Vienna as Jesse and Celine do, and, by extension, regarding them as they do one another, too.

So convincing is their underlying connection, and all the little ways that director Linklater and actors/collaborators Delpy and Hawke enliven it with looks and gestures and scene composition – body language about which college courses could be taught and backdrop details just strictly foreign enough to feel otherworldly – that, by the time time finally becomes a factor, we’re already more than invested enough to feel the ticking clock in our fillings, and, eventually, our heart rate. There is a breathtaking intimacy to a scene early in their travels, as the two visit a record store – much the same way I did around that same time with my own college sweetheart, though we each took one end of the same over-ear headphones instead of sharing a phonebooth – and crowd together into a single listening booth, there coexisting with the nervous shared anticipation of two people already breaking through to the deeper understanding that their chance meeting and impulsive walkabout has become not just a full-blown first date but, quite possibly, something more. Jesse and Celine assiduously try to avoid making eye contact for so long, and that dance is almost as riveting to watch as the moment they seem to spontaneously decide it’s okay after all. Much later, in screen if not necessarily real time, there is a simply adorable interlude where they sit across from one another in a restaurant and pretend to call their best friends back home – “I like feeling his eyes on me when I look away” – with news of the wondrous new person they somehow met in a passenger car on an anonymous eastbound train. Julie Delpy has a smile that starts tentative but grows confident until it lights up not only her entire face but her immediate surroundings. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse begins understandably smitten and, by and by, as hours pass and the sun lowers in the sky (“Still there”), and their already varsity level conversation becomes something deeper still, falls for her, blissfully and irrevocably. Indeed, there might have been no other plausible choice he could make, even given the circumstances. 

Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, Waking Life), despite his reputation for if not always strict realism then thoughtful authenticity, takes no pains to show Vienna warts and all. On some level, he knows this is a literate romantic fantasy, and that his canvas should be alive with the best, or at least most interesting, of humanity rather than its full spectrum. He is concerned throughout with only the single goal of cultivating and communicating through film the immediacy and all-encompassing rush of falling in love – the sort of love based on close, boundless communication and shared experiences rather than Hallmark platitudes, on the exchanging of ideas and unspoken embodiment of ideals – and it is amazing. The Vienna in which Celine and Jesse fall in love is therefore almost impossibly charming, from the goofy amateur playwrights who, when asked for directions, use it as an excuse to advertise their DIY production about a very neurotic (i.e. German) cow, to the “birth dancer” whose own street corner performance marks both a visual and thematic line of demarcation as the couple crosses over into overt night, to the homeless troubadour who, sitting on the shore of the Danube, writes the famous “daydream delusion / limousine eyelash / oh you, with your pretty face” poem, supposedly on spec, and presents it to them as a memento for just a couple of  shekels. “Everything interesting here costs something,” muses Jesse, not much minding, eventually even receiving the unlikely gift of a surreptitious bottle of red wine from a sympathetic bartender. We eavesdrop on conversations in foreign languages and wish for subtitles, and on a young man practicing harpsichord through an open basement window, suitable for an impromptu “last dance” of sorts. Who wouldn’t want to be trapped in such a reverie forever? 

Indeed, much of the fascination of Sunrise’s two vastly different but almost equally compelling sequels – Linklater has joked that Before Sunrise was “the lowest grossing film in Hollywood history to spawn a trilogy” – is that they both go out of their way to either dilute, repurpose, or altogether break the spell of the indispensable original. To that end, Linklater, already the most collaborative of modern directors, is aided beyond measure by contributions from Delpy and Hawke, who, despite lacking the official co-screenwriting credits here they would receive for 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight, are probably the most responsible overall for crafting their characters, how they talk, how they act, what and how much they say, what they respond to and what repels them – if somebody had to be responsible for quality control regarding the limits of Jesse’s persuasiveness, it might as well have been Delpy – and, as a result, lend them tacit credibility even in those scenes where the words are flowing in such a torrent of youthful exuberance and occasional profundity that it beggars belief. The charm of Before Sunrise lies, first and foremost, in its simplicity – the serendipity of a boy and a girl, a mysterious city and a magical night, no more, no less. It is not a story of “will-they” or “won’t-they”, “should-they” or “did-they”, but, rather, “that-they”, and could, as a result, hardly be more refreshing to eyes wizened by repeat exposure to pseudo-romantic multiplex pablum. You feel Jesse and Celine’s intermingled gratitude and longing, joy and regret, as they travel away from one another, possibly never to return, interspersed with a montage of cuts to places they’ve (we’ve) been over the course of the day – a private stoop in a cobblestone alley, the Danube Promenade, the “Cemetery of the Forgotten”, and then, just barely in focus, a lone, empty bottle of wine in the middle of an otherwise deserted park just past sunrise.

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