Few people saw Before Sunrise when it was released in 1995 but those who did really loved it. In its own subtle and unassuming way, Richard Linklater’s film flew in the face of most romantic films at the time. It refused to be dated by obvious, trendy popular culture references and music. It featured an honest dialogue between two twentysomethings who meet by chance on a train and decide to get off together in Vienna. Before Sunrise would also mark an interesting change of pace for Linklater. With Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993), he had worked with rather sizable ensemble casts, but with this film it was essentially two characters and the occasional people they encounter.
Before Sunrise opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American taking a train to Vienna where he plans to fly back home after a disastrous summer trip around Europe. On-board he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student headed for Paris to resume classes at the Sorbonne, thanks to a loudly bickering German couple that causes her to move and sit across from him. In a sly, self-referential nod to the format of Linklater’s to Slacker and Dazed and Confused, which adhered to a 24-hour time frame, Jesse tells Celine about a reality show he would like to see that would consist of 24-hour-long episodes documenting a day in the life of an average person. It sounds like something one of the characters in Slacker would pitch.
Jesse and Celine get to talking in the dinner car and enjoy the experience so much that they agree to get off the train together in Vienna and spend the night walking around the city getting to know each other, taking in the sights. They also encounter several intriguing people along the way, like the two guys who invite them to their play Bring Me the Horns of Wilmington’s Cow, which is an amusing reference to Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The description of their play sounds quite interesting and every time I watch the film I kind of wished that Jesse and Celine had checked it out. It’s a funny, throwaway scene that appears early on and adheres to the amiable, structure established in Slacker of protagonists going from encounter to the next with no real rhyme or reason.
There’s a great moment early on when Jesse and Celine are in a record store listening booth listening to “Come Here” by Kath Bloom. It’s obviously a romantic song and you can see Jesse thinking about making some kind of romantic gesture but stopping himself because it would be way too corny. As Linklater has pointed out in an interview, there is a wonderful awkwardness about this moment that is true to life and something you don’t see much in romantic films.
Celine seems to be obsessed somewhat with death. She takes Jesse to a graveyard populated by unknown people who washed up on the banks of the Danube River. She points out one grave of a 13-year-old girl, the same age when she first saw it. Celine speaks about how much it impacted her at the time and how it still resonates with her. It’s a nice, poignant moment that reveals a lot about her character. A few minutes later, we learn how Jesse is much more jaded about love and life in general – perhaps as the result of coming from divorced parents and recently being dumped by his girlfriend. At one point, he tells Celine that he views life like “I was crashing a big party.”
Jesse and Celine kiss on the same Ferris wheel made famous in The Third Man (1949) when Orson Welles delivers a famous monologue. It is Before Sunrise’s only obvious, touristy moment. There are so many wonderful little interludes in this film, like when Jesse and Celine are sitting at an outdoor cafe and she gets her palm read by an old gypsy lady who tells them that they are stardust. It’s a funny moment but when the lady first takes a look at Celine’s hand she tells her that Celine has to resign herself to the “awkwardness of life.” It’s the one decent observation among the cliché observations that she tells Celine. After the palm reader leaves they laugh about it but the scene underlines the romantic nature of Celine and the cynical worldview of Jesse.
Celine speaks fondly of her grandmother and how she sometimes feels like an old woman and Jesse replies that he sometimes feels like a 13-year-old boy stuck in a dress rehearsal, taking notes for when he has to become an adult. I remember feeling like that in my twenties; in that transitory state between college and joining the workforce. You don’t quite feel like you belong anywhere and Linklater nails it with this exchange between Jesse and Celine.
One my favorite scenes in the film is when Jesse and Celine happen upon a street poet. Instead of just asking them for money he asks them for a word. He composes a poem for them with the word inserted somewhere. If they like it they can give him some money. He recites a wonderful little poem that is romantic and filled with evocative imagery. Again, this scene reinforces Jesse and Celine’s different views of love. She finds the poem romantic and spontaneous while he says that the street poet probably just inserted the word into a pre-existing poem that he had already written.
By today’s standards, with the proliferation of technology like cell phones and virtual meeting places like MySpace and Facebook, the way Jesse and Celine interact in Before Sunrise is positively old school and dates the film in a good way. For example, in one scene Jesse and Celine talk about past relationships over a game of pinball in a nightclub. Pinball machines are rarely made anymore and not as common as they used to be a couple of decades ago. Linklater grew up in the 1970s when pinball was all the rage and as someone who has fond memories of them, I love how they are used as a piece of business for Jesse and Celine to do while they talk about their ex’s.
What makes Before Sunrise such a great film is that it avoids the sappy clichés that are so rampant in most romantic films. Despite the Generation-X marketing of the film, complete with a Lemonheads song in the trailer, Before Sunrise also avoids that pitfall by not using any contemporary “alternative” music or excessive usage of pop culture references that have mired and dated lesser films. This was a conscious concern for the cast as Delpy said in an interview, “We wanted to avoid any pop culture references and just show individuals attempting to communicate and care for someone else.”
The seeds for the film had been planted long ago. According to Linklater, he had been thinking about Before Sunrise for five years. It would be a film about two people, because, at the time, he had never really dealt with male-female issues or romance. The film was based on an encounter Linklater had in 1989. He met a woman in a toy store in Philadelphia and they spent the night walking around the city together, conversing deep into the night. Originally in the screenplay, who the two characters were and the city they spend time in was vague. He realized that because the film was so much a dialogue between a man and a woman he knew that it was important to have a strong woman co-writer – Kim Krizan who had small roles in Slacker and Dazed and Confused. He wanted to write a script with her because he “loved the way her mind worked – a constant stream of confident and intelligent ideas.”
Linklater wanted to explore the “relationship side of life and discover two people who had complete anonymity and try to find out who they really were.” He put Jesse and Celine together in foreign country because “when you’re traveling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm.” He and Krizan talked about the concept of the film and the characters for a long time. Then, they worked on an outline followed by the actual script which was written in 11 days.
Before Sunrise is filled with great conversations about sex, relationships, dreams, death, religion, and life in general. Imagine My Dinner with Andre (1981) if the two characters from that film had actually left the restaurant. There are conversations in Before Sunrise that you swear you’ve had before — they are that good. It doesn’t hurt that the film contains only two protagonists and this enables Linklater to take the time and explore their personalities. “In both Slacker and Dazed and Confused, the audience was literally plopped down amongst the characters and you never really got to know them that well apart from their momentary interactions and behavior with each other. So I wanted to make a movie about a unique relationship while still conforming to a character-driven narrative where their personal thoughts are continually verbalized.” The structure of Before Sunrise lies in the characters themselves. The narrative is propelled by their decisions and their actions. Linklater was careful in who he chose for the two main roles which went to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The director didn’t care what they had done before, but instead based his choice on his impressions based upon meeting the two actors.
When Linklater first considered casting Hawke he thought the actor was too young. Linklater saw him at a play in New York City and reconsidered after talking to him. To his credit, Hawke amends for his self-conscious hipster from Reality Bites (1994) – something I can’t fault him for entirely as I’m sure he played the character as it was written. With Jesse, Hawke plays a much more developed, three-dimensional character that he obviously had input on how he was going to portray him. Hawke’s character actually suggests some depth and personality than merely turning into a philosophizing, ‘70s sitcom quoting machine like in Reality Bites. Initially, Jesse comes across as Linklater’s philosopher character at the beginning of Slacker with his crazy idea for a reality show, but over the course of the film he falls under Celine’s spell. She manages to get past his cynical exterior with her earnest romanticism. Hawke does a nice job of hinting at the romantic that lurks beneath his facade only to emerge in the subsequent sequel Before Sunset (2004).
Linklater met Julie Delpy and liked her personality. She is simply wonderful in her portrayal of Celine. Before Sunrise is, without a doubt, my favorite performance of hers. She plays Celine as a smart, funny independent woman but with insecurities and self doubts that only make her even more endearing. It doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, truly the Botticelli angel that Jesse describes her as being. As she remembers, “Although my character was very much my romantic side, I also had to be strong while dealing with this American man.” Delpy was concerned that her character would be reduced to some “cliché-ridden feminine mass,” but Linklater never lets this happen. This is due in large part to the fact that he wrote the screenplay with Kim Krizan to give the film more balance. “I certainly thought that since the film is so much a dialogue between a man and a woman,” Linklater explains, “it was important to have a strong woman co-writer and a strong woman in the production.” Delpy has incredible chemistry with Hawke and it feels genuine. The way they look at each other, especially when the other one is talking, you can see, over the course of the film that their characters are falling in love.
At one point Jesse tells Celine, “I feel like this is some dream world we’re in,” to which she replies, “It must be like I’m in your dream and you’re in mine.” This is what Before Sunrise is – a cinematic dream world that we can lose ourselves in every time we watch it. Linklater captures a specific moment in time for these two characters – one magical night where they make a true connection that they will never forget. Interestingly, Before Sunrise ends like Dazed and Confused, in the early morning with Jesse and Celine rejoining the real world after spending all night together. Near the end of the film there is a montage of places that they shared together – it’s a visual summary of the film and also a sad reminder of places that they will never be again. Before Sunrise ends on a melancholic note with feelings of longing for what could have been. It’s a very unusual way to end a romantic film but it is keeping perfectly in tone with the rest of the film.