Before Sunrise (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Céline (Julie Delpy), on her way to Paris for school, sits across the aisle from a German couple whose argument is quickly escalating to an explosion so, for her own safety, she decides to get up and move toward the back of the train. She finds an empty seat across Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American on his way to Vienna. They strike a conversation, feel an almost immediate connection, and so they move to the lounge to share food, philosophies, and stories. Before they knew it, the train has arrived in Vienna but Jesse persuades Celine to get off the train with him, explore the city, and spend a few more hours together before his flight to America.
Romance pictures without glitz and glamour, unnecessary plot complications like mistaken identities, and a denouement that relies on the big question of whether the central couple will end up together after being torn apart for so long–sometimes more than once–are especially difficult to pull off. Compound it with a screenplay that focuses on two people sharing an extended conversation, “Before Sunrise,” written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan, proves to be a rarity. It is romantic and introspective but it leaves enough room to expand and challenge its characters’ life philosophies and perspectives–as well as our own. Though we do not speak to them, we are a part of their conversation.
The interaction between Céline and Jesse feels natural but the evolution in their mannerisms toward one another are not always obvious especially when one is comfortably ensconced in their words. A few minutes upon their meeting, Céline and Jesse do a lot of looking down, like many of us tend to do while trying to get familiar with a stranger, and using their hands as a way to relieve tension in their bodies and perhaps to distract the listener from analyzing the speaker’s words and point of view. In direct contrast after they have spoken to each other for hours, they tend to lean into each other more often as if to listen a little bit more closely, their hands not used to distract but to grab or caress, their eyes dare to be looked into rather than to be avoided.
The more Jesse and Céline get to know one another, the more we know them. Though Jesse may not be aware of it, Céline has courteous laugh which she often employs when he tries too hard to be funny or witty. Delpy commands attention when she smiles: some smiles are genuine and others are forced. We wonder what she really thinks about this guy who hopes so badly to impress her. On the other hand, there are instances when Jesse has the tendency to just nod in agreement at some of Céline’s points just so he can get a chance to speak and get to his two cents–sometimes a pseudo-intellectual idea and other times an idea that is actually worth rumination. We wonder about the extent in which he has fallen for her.
Vienna is a character, too. Just as Jesse and Céline adapt to each other’s responses, they are required to acclimatize to the city. When it gets too hot on the bus, a jacket is taken off mid-conversation. When the hustle and hustle of downtown gets too loud, their voices must be raised. When a stranger approaches them, they must choose whether to entertain or keep walking. When the camera offers shots of other people talking to one another, in a foreign language sans subtitles, we wonder if their conversations are as engaging.
Directed by Richard Linklater, although I have seen “Before Sunrise” more than half a dozen times, what I remember most are not the quaint places they visit or colorful people they encounter, but the feelings and the images that the characters paint using their words. Just when I think I am more like Céline, Jesse admits to how he still feels like a thirteen-year-old boy who does not know how to be an adult. He has to pretend that he does. I have similar feelings and he says it with a mixture of pride and sorrow. Though others lose the feeling of how it was like to be young, people like Jesse and I will always be wondering–sometimes in an insecure way–if we are mature enough for a situation or a relationship.
And then Jesse goes on to talk about seeing his grandmother’s ghost through a rainbow when he was a kid. What a beautiful mental image: you, the living, on one side; a loved one who has passed away, the dead, on the other side; and the rainbow, a transient demarcation, a portal to another universe.