So what is it about “Before Sunrise” that makes it so exceptional? Like any good romance it has wonderful dialogue and a picturesque setting (in this case, Vienna). But like the best romances, there is a tangible connection between our two leads, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). The connection is immediate, both in the script and between the actors, and the result is a film which feels honest and genuine in a way that few films of the sort are able to achieve.
The two meet on a train, Jesse on his way to fly back to New York from Vienna, Celine on her way back home to Paris. They randomly strike up a conversation and their chemistry is immediate, tangible. Jesse convinces Celine to spend the day with him in Vienna. He’ll be gone, out of her life in less than 24 hours, so why not explore Vienna with someone she might later regret not taking a chance with?
The two then, until sunrise the following day, wandering the city, discovering its nooks and crannies, all the while a constant stream of thoughts, ponderings and conversations pour between them. Relationships past, fears about life and death, being in love, being out of love, things that annoy and things that inspire them. No topic is off-limits with these two, perhaps because they have such a strong attraction and are eager to learn as much as they can of the other, or perhaps because there is the immediate (and likely) possibility that they will simply never see each other again, therefore allowing such vulnerability poses little risk.
One of my biggest complaints with so many romance stories is the speed with which the two leads fall for each other. Far too often you’ll see couples professing undying, “happily ever after” love after mere weeks or even days of being together. So the fact that Linklater (along with his co-writer Kim Krizan), Hawke and Delpy manage to sell this relationship so fully on such a truncated span of time is impressive and rare.
Although I appreciate that Celine and Jesse aren’t professing undying love for each other by the film’s end. They simply realize that they may be on the verge of losing something truly special, and you see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. Yes, what they discovered over the last 24 hours may not last forever, but it was genuine and honest in the time that they had together. It’s remarkable stuff, both from an execution and construction standpoint.
I can’t speak highly enough regarding Linklater’s direction here, both in terms of what he accomplishes and his growth as a filmmaker. This was his immediate follow up to “Dazed and Confused” but you’d almost be hard-pressed to tell, so great is his growth narratively and aesthetically. It’s a tremendous leap, especially into a film that could have collapsed under its own weight quite easily considering the film is little more than two people talking the entire time.
More than anything, I was left wanting more time with these characters, and thankfully I can have just that. Linklater made a sequel ten years later with “Before Sunset” and has just recently finished a third, “Before Midnight,” which will debut at SXSW in Austin later this year. I can’t wait.
Next week, I’ll take a look at Linklater’s dreamlike “Waking Life.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.