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Holy Hell! Before Sunrise Turns 20

Holy Hell! Before Sunrise Turns 20

Before Sunrise benefits most from time’s changed perspective.

When it debuted at Sundance in 1995, no one — including director and cowriter Richard Linklater — knew Before Sunrise would be the start of a larger cinematic endeavor. The film, at once deeply romantic and somewhat pretentious, is a lark. Set in Vienna, it follows Celine, a jaded French grad student, and Jesse, a heartsick American traveller. After meeting on a Paris-bound train, the two agree to kill the hours before Jesse’s early morning flight back to the States. Whip-smart and endearing, Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) walk through the moonlit city, and they talk. They also explore landmarks, browse vinyl, play pinball, drink wine, fuck outdoors — but mostly, they talk. As dawn nears, melancholy sets in. Celine and Jesse, idealistic twenty-somethings, are realists to an extent. They know that everything is stacked against them, that they’ll probably never see each other again. This magical encounter will likely fade into the stuff of journal entries or, in Jesse’s case, a bestselling novel.

Before Sunrise notably ends on a cliffhanger. At the last minute, Celine and Jesse promise to reunite in six months. Will they? And if they do, can their relationship survive? Before Sunset, set in Paris nine years later, answers the former question. Before Midnight, set in the Peloponnese nine years after that, reckons with the latter.

The Before trilogy remains unprecedented in its combination of temporal sweep and narrative restraint. Yes, Michael Apted’s groundbreaking Up project is a precursor of sorts. And Linklater’s own Boyhood checked in with its cast for twelve years and delivered a remarkable single-serve product. Still, his Before films are unique in ambition and form. Unlike the Up installments, they’re pure fiction. And in contrast to Boyhood, these daylong snapshots are separated by chasms of uncertainty. Linklater’s tryptic asks the audience to wait decades for basic payoffs. When we get them, missing pieces are left to be filled in as new troubles come to light.

Though they work best as chapters in an ongoing saga, each Before film stands as a self-contained work. Before Sunrise benefits most from time’s changed perspective. I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a song about reevaluation and regret, which she recorded twice, first in youth and later in middle-age. Returning to Before Sunrise offers a comparable experience. When Celine and Jesse strike up their original conversation on the train, they’re trying to shut out the loud bickering of a German couple, presumably long married. Eventually, we’ll see them transform into a version of that miserable couple. Jesse convinces Celine to disembark with him for a singular experience, something to look back on when she’s settled later in life. Little does Jesse know that he’ll be the source of Celine’s future frustrations. To paraphrase Mitchell, their Viennese adventure will become another one of life’s illusions. And Celine will find herself spitting disappointments back at him with plenty of bile.

Of course, we’re invested in Celine and Jesse’s open-ended story because, warts and all, it’s rooted in an almost cosmic kind of love. They’re kindred spirits connected by sparkling, highly stylized repartee. Delpy and Hawke embody a certain type of relationship ideal. They communicate to a fault, but respect each other’s ideas even in disagreement. Language is romance, foreplay and intimacy. Language is love and what comes later. In Before Sunrise, Celine and Jesse have to shut up long enough to share their first kiss on a Ferris wheel. And they can only express their burgeoning affections through telephonic role play. Yet it is a startling directness that defines their relationship through three films: for better, for worse, for both.

I doubt Before Sunrise would have ended differently given today’s technology. Celine and Jesse make a conscious choice to avoid the trappings of superficial connection. They refuse to swap phone numbers, or even last names. Would we expect them to friend, follow, or subscribe to each other’s social media accounts? Of course not. That’s part of why the Before trilogy seems timeless and inevitable. If you’re being less generous, it may seem intentionally old-fashioned. What’s more anachronistic than conversation without emojis? Two people and the ideas that draw them, then bind them. Just two people, talking through the night against a gorgeous backdrop.

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