Before Sunrise (1995) will always have an important place in my own private cinematic history, if for nothing more than allowing me to realize that a long term relationship I was in was about to bust apart. Featuring a day where the young Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two perfect strangers, jump off a train together to stroll the streets of Vienna, Before Sunrise may be one of the few perfect romantic films ever created. Sure, people identify the film as the one where Hawke and Delpy talk and talk and nothing ever happens, but those viewers are clearly not attuned to their own emotions or the nuance that is happening before them on the screen.

Branching out from his prior, Texas-based films Slacker and Dazed and Confused, the idea for Before Sunrise actually germinated while director Richard Linklater visited the east coast to exhibit parts of Slacker. While in a toy store in Philadelphia, he met a woman, connected instantly and spent the evening walking the city streets and talking. After finishing those aforementioned films, Linklater began to work on Before Sunrise, bringing in screenwriter Kim Krizan to help write not only the female part, but the male part as well. Somehow the idea was transposed to Austria where Jesse and Celine would fall in love.

At the beginning of the film, Jesse is riding a train, tooling around Europe after a failed romance in Spain, when he meets Celine. While an older German couple fights nearby, Jesse makes eye contact with Celine, who has moved closer to him to get away from the noise. He asks her if she can understand the disagreement, but she turns out to be French, returning west from Hungary where she had been visiting her grandmother. The two begin to talk and Jesse invites her to get off the train and spend the day in Austria with him.

That’s basically it, in terms of plot. Jesse and Celine wander through the city, talk about their hopes and fears, flirt, argue, make love in a park, promise to meet again in the Vienna train station in six months and then separate. While the emergence of sequel Before Sunset in 2004 deletes the will-they-or-won’t-they proposition of the ending, Linklater still leaves us with a delicious question to ponder.

“We know of course (having been told so many times) that characters in a fiction have no existence beyond it,” wrote recently departed critic Robin Wood. “And it is therefore improper to speculate about their lives outside it. But Before Sunrise seems to defy such a prohibition.” This sentiment is perfectly true. When a film ends, most characters live happily ever after or meet their doom. That is why the freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows and its ambiguous ending was so refreshing in 1959. Truffaut does not spoon feed us what becomes of Antoine Doinel. Here, we spend the day with Jesse and Celine and they become much more than characters on a screen. They become real enough that we speculate on their fate six months after the movie ends.


This speculation separates the realists from the romantics. While some people will believe that Jesse and Celine reunite after six months, the realist will point out financial burden, lost interest, cross continental logistics and the cruel erosion of time as hallmarks of this relationship not working. It also leads the rich portending of which character is more likely to make the journey back to Vienna, the American Jesse or the French Celine.

Hawke and Delpy both embrace the performances of their respective careers in Before Sunrise. Each character is rich with nuance and deeply textured. The puppy-faced Hawke is the romantic of the pair. He is up front with his intention, the first declare his attraction, unburdened by cynicism unless it regards fortune tellers and poetry. Delpy’s Celine is definitely more the more worldly, guarded and aware, throwing out such zingers as, “I hate being told by strange men in the street to smile, to make them feel better about their boring lives,” or “I hate being told, especially in America, ‘Oh, you’re so French, you’re so cute.'” Yet, she embraces the idea of magic and ultimately allows herself to fall in love with Jesse and let down her guard.

Many of us can remember the first, exciting embers of a romance and Linklater wisely picks Vienna as his stage for Before Sunrise. Both Celine and Jesse are foreigners and neither speaks the language. When we are taken out of our own environment, we are forced to confront ourselves on a level in which we do not normally look at on familiar soil. Neither of these characters have that comfort to fall back upon, allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and ultimately more honest. They have nothing to lose.

If a simple romantic tryst isn’t enough, Before Sunrise is loaded with all sorts of allusions to death, passage of time, fate and our impermanent place in this world. Both characters seem obsessed with death, Jesse talking about seeing the shade of his dead great-grandmother as a child and Celine admitting to her fear of death around the clock. Linklater is subtly hinting that this romance is a microcosmic example of any living thing in this world. It has its time to dance and then fades away into nothing. In a masterful stroke, Linklater’s camera revisits all the places Jesse and Celine visited over the course of the film in its finale, with a mournful Bach passage accompanying, each scene picturing life carrying on without them or showing subtle fragments of their passage. Though bittersweet, it is best to recognize these characters even had a chance to meet. Regardless of what happens six months down the line, that one night of beauty is more potent than some entire lifetimes.

There are so many perfect moments in this film; it is hard to list them without excluding others. Celine and Jesse go to a record store and enter a listening booth, Linklater’s camera holding still as the two listen to a song and steal glances. Or when they are in a café and play a game where one calls the other masquerading as a friend to discuss the encounter. Or the when the pair is interrupted as they enter the final throes of the dying hours together by a young Austrian practicing the Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord.

No matter how many times I revisit Before Sunrise, I gain something new with each viewing. It is a bittersweet movie, one filled with regret, longing, love and sorrow. “The feeling is of sadness and happiness inextricably intermingled,” wrote Wood. “Regret for the separation and uncertainty but a deep satisfaction in the degree of mutual understanding and intimacy two humans beings have achieved in a few hours.”

Of course, the sequel does alter the way we now view Before Sunrise. But if you can compare any film to a sonnet, it’s this one. The Celine and Jesse who meet nine years later are not the fresh-faced youths of this encounter. A lot has happened over that span of time that has marked them: failed romances, broken dreams, the emotional guardedness that comes with age and experience. But Linklater and Before Sunrise do exactly what the film itself professes we cannot do: it captures that day, that moment where nothing in the future can ever replicate all those perfect ingredients to create such a symphony of vulnerability and togetherness in those perfect moments. However, no matter how many times we watch the film, Jesse and Celine must part at the end and what we bring to the film, in terms of our personal experiences, changes on each viewing. But watching Before Sunrise does remind me of a time and the feelings I had, years ago, when I was in Europe, in love. But then I also remember I knew that in a short span of time I would have to go home and that precise feeling would be gone forever.

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