With Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater caught lightning in a bottle. Never mind that he would catch the same bolt nine years later with Before Sunset and is trying his luck for a third time with the upcoming Before Midnight; that Before Sunrise can unfold so naturally with no plot and speak so honestly over conversations about romance, reincarnation, and ghosts is nothing short of miraculous. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine with such naturalistic mannerisms, Hawke with the type of confident swagger and self-mocking that masks insecurity and Delpy with a more pensive, almost nervous delivery that suggests a smart woman who knows she’s smart but wants to be smarter, that they both have enough vivid personality for any viewer to relate.
Thanks to a bickering couple, Celine and Jesse end up sitting together on a train, her going home to Paris and him stopping in Vienna to catch a flight back to America the next day. After the kind of small-talk you can only have with a stranger who you would like to see again but assume you never will, Jesse makes her an offer she can’t refuse: She will get off the train with him as a form of “time travel,” a favor to her future self and her future husband to let her know what the guys she remembers but never gave a chance would have been like. A loser, no better than your husband, Jesse suggests, to put your future mind at ease, or, just maybe, the love of your life. It’s presented with the mixture of bravado and irony that would become a staple of protagonists from an entire generation of Brooklynites and hipsters, but Hawke delivers it with enough charm to make you think that he really does want it and is just a bit shy, but definitely not a bad guy. It’s the level of honesty that all small-budget, big-heart romances aim for but very few achieve, but Linklater traps it here years before it took over American independent cinema.
And so they begin to walk, together, around Vienna. They have no particular goal; they just ride Ferris Wheels, visit a couple noteworthy sites, go to a bar or two, talk to the artistically-inclined homeless, and avoid the possibility that they won’t see each other ever again after Jesse leaves for the airport. For just one day, Celine and Jesse are living in their own world. Nobody knows where they are, and only the company of the other person matters. Lucky for us, their conversations are smart and thoughtful, with Jesse making light of a somewhat troubled youth to explain his hardened cynicism, and Celine much more empathetic, informed by a history of traveling and good familial influence. The two are complementary personalities, neither too serious, both open minded, both quite funny. If they have flaws, it’s that they are almost too good to be true, like the fantasies of adolescents looking for love in exotic places. Still, if Before Sunrise was simply the Jesse and Celine sitting at a table without any urgency, talking for 90 minutes, and working together to fulfill and discover themselves (and each other), it would still be worth watching. But Before Sunrise is much more than that, it’s also a quiet commentary on the difficulties and the fragility of communication.
Several times, Celine (fluent in French and English, with very little German) and Jesse (who took some French in school) encounter some locals trying to speak to them, whose reactions range from a hilarious “can we speak German for once?” to an understanding and compliance of their difference. It’s perhaps the most obvious symbol of stilted communication, it’s an obvious but universalizing parallel with the couple’s own communication problems, where are limited by Jesse’s over-compensated insecurity and of course by time and their confessed impossibility of long-distance relationships. At the same time, there is a clear impression that Celine has been hugely influenced by different cultures, being in different places at different points in her life, while Jesse has, presumably, traveled a bit, but has not had the same opportunities to take in culture. As the confrontations with beggars quietly suggest, their difference in culture is a subtle commentary on class difference and culture, alluded to in the couple’s specific conversations, but never needing to be fully addressed. Almost every conversation in the film has a much larger subtext, suggested purely by the naturalism of performance and the credibility of the writing. It’s a subtle but profound layer to the film, in which communication goes far beyond ease (language) and access (shared time and space) and into the societal norms and cultural differences that allow for meaningful communication to occur in the first place. For all the talk, the most important words are the ones not being spoken, the ones that exist around and before their own conversations.
In contrast, Linklater’s visual eye is not as sharp with Before Sunrise as it is with its sequel, as he often cuts the best shots abruptly short and does not give Vienna sufficient attention to make it the player in the story that it so desperately wants to be. Still, he makes up for it with a focused aesthetic that limits distractions and is more than capable of finding meaningful shots. Take, for example, a shot in which the couple listens to a song together in a listening booth, which captures perfectly the feeling of nervous infatuation. The two look at the other when they can get away with it, or otherwise look up at the ceiling or at the walls and, almost on accident, afraid to do it but just as afraid not to, they make eye contact two or three times. They are trying desperately an attempt to dissuade the romantic tension, but both know that it needs to be there if their one day together is going to be anything at all. It’s butterflies-in-the-stomach in one shot, without a word spoken, and a perfect summation of exactly what love and self-discovery mean to those just coming to terms with adulthood.
That’s the beauty of Before Sunrise. It’s the most convincing masquerade, as if these two lovers are wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but the best it has to offer is just in arms reach, so easy to miss but so obviously there. Like its characters, it does not have all the answers to its philosophical ponderings, offering only as much as the twenty-somethings can experientially conceive, but it does not pretend to. Instead, it wisely sends them off with an uncertain optimism that fits the film’s tone. Essentially, Before Sunrise does to its audience what it does for its characters—it takes them to another world, one outside of “real time,” as Jesse say, where spontaneity and discovery are all that matter, where you exist off the radar, invisible to everyone but the company you desire, if only for the briefest, most magical moments.