Thursday, December 1, 2011

Before Sunrise (1995) - Directed by Richard Linklater

In 1991, Richard Linklater’s experimental masterpiece Slacker was released. Made and shot on a shoestring in his home-town of Austin, Texas, it consisted of a sequence of vignettes (conversations basically) between a couple of characters that lasted anywhere from 5-10 minutes, whereupon the focus then shifted to a new group of people which we follow for another 10 minutes. So the film goes in its attempt to quantify and give weight to the conversations of a smart but rather directionless group of people. It’s arresting in its vibrancy, inventiveness, and quirky characters, whom by definition we never get to know very well. This style of conversation being the centerpiece of the film, was continued to lesser effect in his coming of age tale, Dazed and Confused (1993). Dazed feels like a feigned attempt at profundity and slogs through a high school genre exercise. But, his next film would be an essential slice of 90’s cinema, a film about talking and listening, of profound discussions of life, death, and love, and a relationship that is born, blossoms, and fades within 24 hours.

Before Sunrise takes the concept laid down in Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but is more mature and focuses on two people for the entire film, rather than groups, so we’re able to dig deep into two souls who have been brought together for a very short time. We’re introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian, on a train in Europe. She is reading 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 next to Jesse (Ethan Hawke). He and she notice each other. He strikes up a conversation with her, a conversation that will last for something like the next 24 hours, after he convinces her to get off 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 must part ways, but in between they spend the entire day, night, and next morning talking, listening, and falling in love. His asking her to go with him 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 false sense of preocupation for the audience. We feel that Celine and Jesse earn each other's trust, and our trust as the audience because they are generally interested in each other as equals, as human beings drawn together. 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 film has a gorgeously romantic atmosphere and a few scenes highlight the chemistry between the leads. I love the scene on the trolley-car that is a 6-minute conversation done in one take. They 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 hear it. Linklater’s camera focuses on both their faces at the same time as they listen to the yearning, romantic ballad with the tension literally boiling over. They both want to look at each other during the song. But every time Jesse looks at her, she looks at him and he turns away, and vice versa as they avoid making eye contact out of embarrasment. This scene aches with a tenderness that is unbearably real. Of course much of the film is devoted to just following them through the city as they wander, but they encounter a few people along the way that 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 serious couple. Later, a palm reader seems to recognize 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, 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. Their relationship seems to exist outside of time itself, and in the morning they have to face tough decisions. 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.  It's this tug-of-war between romanticism and reality that sets up the difficult decisions. 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, and what life could be. Celine and Jesse are constantly attempting to answer these questions.

This film wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for the winning performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, giving life and breadth to the film and commanding our attention for the entire length of it. They are literally onscreen together for nearly the whole film. 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 and fears, making the film far less dated than it could be today. Of course, 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 light of day upon them, these places feel ordinary and empty, as if the fleeting moments they shared together are destined to remain only as memories... or will they? It’s no big secret that there is a sequel to the film, Before Sunset, which takes place 10 years after Before Sunrise, that is an essential companion to the first one. I will examine the sequel next week. But it’s the first film that can always stand on it’s own, and there is a freshness about Before Sunrise even today.  Before Sunrise is one of my favorite dramatic romances, along with Casablanca (1942) and Brief Encounter (1948).


Sam Juliano said...

The atmosphere and the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable Jon, and I know the reputation of this film and its companion-piece is high up in the critical stratosphere, but it's one of my own filmgoing mysteries as to why neigher worked for me, even on repeated viewings. I found this film turgid and forced and somewhat dishonest, but such criticisms have gotten me into trouble in the blogosphere, so I've hibernated, only coming to life when someone writes a rave like this. LOL!

Honestly, this is yet another wonderful read, and one day I may yet see the light.

Jon said...


I know your feelings on the film and that's okay they are valid from your point of view. You don't need to defend yourself on this one. We have disagreed on other films including Touch of Evil. That's just the way things go. I would go to the mat for the film, but I don't think either of us feel we need to go there. There are films I don't like, including Love Me Tonight that I know you hold in high regard. Just one example. I've always connected with this one though.

Dan O. said...

This is just about as perfect as romantic dramas get because the chemistry is right there and the writing just seems so realistic that it feels like you're actually watching these two fall in love over-night. Great film and great review Jon.

Jon said...

Thanks Dan O. for your great comments. I agree. There are very few films that get it right like this and this is one of the best romantic dramas I can think of. It seems to me it's harder to do romantic drama well as opposed to romantic comedy which can rely on other distractions (the comedy).