Directed by Richard Linklater. Screenplays by Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, based on stories and characters by Linklater and Krizan. Produced by Richard Linklater and Anne Walker-McBay. Before Sunrise music by Fred Frith. Photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. Production designed by Florian Reichmann and Baptiste Glaymann. Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset, together comprise a miracle in filmed romantic fiction. They contain no love triangles, no idiot plots. No wacky misunderstandings, or obnoxious friends, or implausible plot details, or forced melodrama. They employ—in fact—none of the tired gimmicks that movies often use to reduce the concept of love into clockwork traffic for a rigid plot. They instead strive to create an effect that is downright basic, wide-eyed, and lovely. The films are about the most simple thing that a drama can ever be about: talking. Yes, it plays against a lush backdrop of Vienna and later Paris, but that’s just the stage. The overall thrust is two people talking, for two movies. That’s it.
Not just any people. They’re smart kids with a lot to say. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American escaping his ex-girlfriend in Madrid, wandering Europe on the last leg of walkabout. Celine (Julie Delpy), on the other hand, is a French university student (one with an impressively thorough command of English) coming home from visiting her grandmother. They’re both in their early twenties, both on the same train from Budapest bound for Paris. They meet when Celine politely moves away from a bickering German couple. Their first exchange is halting…hesitant. Common. But then they talk a little more, and they like it. They talk a little more. And then a little more.
So they retreat to a dining car where they talk even more. They talk about themselves, and their pasts, and the way their lives are shaping up. Somewhere around the moment that he recounts a spirited story about his late grandmother, a connection between Jesse and Celine is forged. The train stops in Vienna, and Jesse departs, but then doubles back and invites Celine to accompany him to see the city for the night. He posits a future where she regrets not going with him. “Think of this as time travel,” he says, “to find out what you’re missing out on.” And she accepts.
For the rest of Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine wander the streets of Vienna, visiting nightclubs, cafés and carnivals, but most importantly enjoying each other’s extended company. They fall in love, yes, in a delicate and unforced way that shames other movies that are more interested in gamesmanship and conquest. Most films presume an easy mastery of love, but Before Sunrise is more observant and thoughtful. Instead of telling us that these people are in love, Before Sunrise shows us them becoming so, and holds the process up for close study. We witness the interplay of ideas, the easy rapport they begin to share, and admire the subtle rhythms of a romance blossoming before our eyes. And unlike most other love stories, it acknowledges a connection that is just as intellectual as it is physical.
Their discussions over this long night in Vienna will range from gender politics to religion to the awe they feel from their very surroundings. Both of them reveal themselves to be more intelligent and curious than their generational average. Even when Jesse and Celine’s discussions are half-baked, they’re flippantly spontaneous and feel correct: see the moment when Jesse pontificates about the mathematics of reincarnation, and then catches himself and chuckles at the absurdity. They’re caught here grappling with the big issues that so many people their age have, articulating them in ways that so many wish they could. At no point do these characters seem ill at ease with the words of the screenplay; it feels more like music that is seldom-heard but absolutely exists. Part of that is the charm of the actors, but also it’s a credit to the skill of a screenplay that makes none of these discussions feel contrived. The dialogue is not term-paper dry; it’s filled with little conversational nooks and asides, and the shifting of power that every great dialogue has. It’s genuinely a smartly-made movie about people who are irrepressibly smart.
Before Sunrise is a film made out of granular moments in time. If it has an arc, it is one that consists mainly of two people discovering they want to spend more and more time together. As things progress, the characters open up. Jesse’s early attempts at depth are ostentatious; he’s maybe even a little smarmy and shallow when he first picks up Celine. But Celine sees something is there, and there is. The couple’s tentative early discussions give way to more thoughtful and resonant truths, and there’s something marvelous about the way the two of them gradually remove their filters and expose themselves.
The film’s pieces are sublime. There’s an early scene in a record shop listening booth where they court each other with a perfectly timed ballet of glances and glances away. Then there is the sweet sincerity of the scene where they both have imaginary conversations with their best friends back home and tell them of the wonderful person they have just met. A vagabond writes them a poem on the spot, and when they debate about it, there’s a nice erotic charge in Jesse’s question: “Did we just have our first fight?” When the story climaxes later with the possibility of sex, the previous hour and a half of talk has been framed in such romantic terms that actual lovemaking seems like a post-script. “I think I decided to sleep with you when we got off the train,” says Celine. “But now that we’ve talked so much, I don’t know anymore.” Sex isn’t really the point. Connection is.
Before Sunrise ends with a promise, that the two of them will meet again in six months. Did they each keep their promise in 1995? That’s two separate questions, isn’t it? For nine years, we had no answer except for the one we created in our heads. But then we got 2004’s Before Sunset, in which Celine and Jesse meet once again in her home, Paris. He is now a respected author, having written a novel about that very pivotal night in Vienna. She comes to his book signing, and they reconnect over the 80 free minutes that Jesse has before he must leave for the airport. Unlike Before Sunrise, which tells the story of an entire night over about 105 minutes, Before Sunset plays in real-time, as two people—perhaps soul mates—try to make the most out of what they have.
If this sound maudlin or depressing, you’d be forgiven for thinking so, but you’d be wrong. Before Sunset is a different movie than its predecessor, but it’s just as vital, and perhaps even more frankly necessarily. Before Sunrise is certainly a romantic film, but it’s easy to be romantic when you are young person with wanderlust, and have your future ahead of you. Before Sunset, on the other hand, is about people who are in their thirties. More weary, more burdened. More wistful about what might have been, more cognizant of time running out. The ticking clock and real-time strategy aren’t gimmicks, but effectively convey the feeling of a world that is surrounding the couple rather than opening up for them. They are not repeated, but Jesse’s words in Before Sunrise about time travel are poignant here, because despite being canny back then about the notion of regrets, it’s nine years later, and oh, does he have them.
They both open up that problem of regret, in dialogue that is just as carefully coiled as it was in Before Sunrise, but now on a different playing field, quite literally. Instead of talking about abstract ideals, they talk about themselves, their real lives, their real problems. Jesse is now married with children, and Celine has a new boyfriend, but the more they are with each other, the more the two of them become utterly convinced that they missed something—something that could have redefined their lives for the better.
They were once very articulate kids, but in Before Sunset their emotions are deeper, the dialogue is more bracing, and the prospect of their eternal unhappiness is more pressing (I like the subtle note that occurs when the two of them share a cigarette here, where in the earlier film neither of them smoked). Although Jesse and Celine are hardened, their inherent fascination remains untouched. If the past decade has extinguished the fire of Jesse and Celine’s romance, then Before Sunset is not at all about surveying the ashes—it’s about rekindling a flame of hope.
This somehow makes Before Sunset sweeter and more crucial than Before Sunrise, because while Before Sunrise accepted the existence of romance, Before Sunset uses its absence to argue for it. Celine casually suggests that Jesse’s book—and his memory—is idealized. This is a clever bit of writing, because first off, it makes it clear that this film is staking out new, more complicated territory than the original. And it’s also subtle foreshadowing– a shade of characterization that hints at the way adults reject old passions, resenting the way memory makes them feel small. There is challenge here, and higher stakes, because these two are not grad students anymore, but adults with specific problems and schedules that are just offstage. Back then, they had all the time in the world, and this time they don’t. They’ve also grown more comfortable with selective memory: she doesn’t recall that they had sex that night, and he doesn’t recall exactly how many times they did.
The movie’s unstated thesis is that at some point in our lives, we trade whimsy for wisdom. Both Jesse and Celine realize that they took each other for granted. Says Celine: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” True. So now what? Questions like that prove the need for this continuation of the story. In a lot of ways, Before Sunset is the ultimate rarity: a sequel that not only is better than the original, but supersedes it, as if the previous film, as good as it was, was merely prologue for this one. They work in concert together, consisting one of the greatest film romances ever seen.
The word choise there is deliberate. “Seen,” not “made,” because both films unfold so effortlessly it seems counter-intuitive to suggest they were “made,” at all. In both, the construction is simple on the surface, but hides daunting precision and craft. The dialogue is written to sound spontaneous, and succeeds—think about how hard that is. The camera captures the magic and grace of midsummer, and also views our characters walking down real streets in long takes, establishing the viewer as a third-party, or a voyeur. There are no flashy edits, just extended shots that are only broken up when they absolutely need to be. The effect is almost documentarian–that the camera is recording something that really happened in front of it, no storytelling or trickery involved. Of course, if that were true, the angles would be impossible, but we’re not supposed to think about that, and we don’t.
This effect is only enhanced when you consider the actors. Hawke, sometimes dismissed as the poor man’s Tom Cruise, doesn’t often get good roles, but he has his signature one here as Jesse. I like his evasiveness, his grin that seems to belie deep need, the way he can communicate several thoughts with a look. In both films he has facial hair, and I enjoy how in the first he wears it as an affectation, and then in the second film as a defense. Delpy has a trickier role, more remote and wispy, but she sometimes says volumes with her body language. I love the confident swagger she puts into a Nina Simone imitation, or the tiny moment where she reaches out to comfort Hawke, and then thinks better of it and withdraws before he gets a chance to see. Or the raw emotion that is gently placed on her face when she sings a song. Towards the end of Before Sunset, she has a moment of confused anger that startles us with its suddenness, but in many way is the fulcrum of the entire story, delivered at the right time, by the right actress for it, flawlessly.
But of course they’re exactly right for the roles. The parts are not just theirs, they’re not just written for them–they are them. Delpy and Hawke even co-wrote the latter film, and you can sense that in the screenplay’s specificity and the way it toys with autobiography (Hawke’s relationship with Uma Thurman was deteriorating at right around the time he was shooting this movie about a regretful husband). The two actors are more specific and genuine in the later movie…but that is not a criticism. It’s kind of brilliant, because that’s the very point: what is youth if not mannerism and posturing, which gives way in adulthood to pragmatism? And what better way to underline the time between the two stories, both onscreen and off? The Delpy and Hawke seen in 1995 could not play their 2004 counterparts, and vice versa, because there is lost knowledge in both directions.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer once said that “in specificity, there is universality.” I think that’s especially true in the Sunset duology. The details in both inform on each other, and inform on how we view these people, and they feel like good friends, because they are so specifically, unwaveringly themselves. We know them. True, we only spend about three hours with them total. But if people can be more than the sum of their parts, than Celine and Jesse are more than the sum of their scenes; by the end of our walking with them, we have realized so much about their dreams and fears that they have become real, in ways that few fictional characters ever do. When our time with them is over, they have earned our eternal empathy. They are part of us.
There is such generosity here. Such exploration of how they act, what they think, what they do and why. It transcends craftsmanship. By keeping Celine and Jesse alive–by allowing their histories to exist in negative space–Linklater and his actors are doing something deeper here than just telling a story. They’re toying with the relationship between fiction and reality, by blurring the line between them and creating characters so vivid, they’re like people from a parallel universe that would be cruel to destroy. Most sequels are unnecessary, but I think Linlakter made Before Sunset because he desired to know what happened to these two, and it didn’t matter a bit that, technically, he controlled what did.
Richard Linklater is maybe the most humanist and peculiar director out there, and one of the most warmly rewarding. His films are always riots of character invention; his first two movies, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, are rich and unconventional studies of how people intersect, and Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are certainly variations on that theme. But they are also a celebration of what makes us human and unique, emphasized by unorthodox form. If people are the most like themselves when no one is watching, than Linklater makes films that pretend no one is. Even his surreal animated film Waking Life had the courage to be a bit dull, as it showed us dreamscapes we couldn’t quite make sense of. Why should dreams make sense, especially if maybe we don’t know the dreamer? Linklater doesn’t want to do anything as pedestrian as entertain us. He wants to watch with us, to seek enlightenment by regarding a subject as we would, and almost telepathically share thoughts. If he’s an experimental director, he is the best kind—one that rattles the doors of standard narrative, and challenges the way a mere movie can affect us. He sometimes makes more traditional movies, yes, but even then these ideas are carefully massaged into them. He’s no sell out.
The two films that comprise the Sunset duology are sweet, and effortlessly engaging, and profound in their lack of phony-profundity. Although Hawke and Delpy are just actors, in a small way they gave some of their lives to this project, by having it be about them and about their aging process, so nakedly. If a good film is a time capsule, than the Sunset films are like a daring experiment in that theory; we essentially have two time capsules here, side by side, filled by the same people, with a distance of almost a decade between them. With the miracle of film, we can go back and forth, and take a hard, unflinching look at who these people were, and who they are. And who they’ll be. It’s like a different take on Michael Apted’s BBC series 7 Up, in which a group of children are returned to every seven years, their confessionals frozen in time for permanent juxtaposition with the now.
Before Sunset ends on a perfect note—one that mirrors the ambiguity of its predecessor. It is for us—each of us—to determine what happens the film’s ending; it requires our own personal understanding of Celine and Jesse, and it invites us to fill them with our own hopes, our own ideas about how precious a magical connection between two people can be. Because that’s what they are. Not characters, not plot devices, no. People. In 2013, it will perhaps be time for another visit to the Before Sunset universe, and I hope Linklater accepts the invitation. There’s so much more to hear, so much more to say, so much to regret and celebrate and enjoy. But mainly, I just want to see Celine and Jesse again. I haven’t heard from them in a while. I wonder how they’re doing.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
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