The first of director Richard Linklater’s famed trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995) is a quirky yet bittersweet romantic tale about two young lovers who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna. After being stuck next to an awkwardly argumentative couple on the train, Céline (Julie Delpy) moves seats and by chance sits near handsome Jesse (Ethan Hawke). They strike up a conversation and go to have a meal in the dining cart, where they bond with one another. Jesse convinces Céline to explore Vienna with him for just one night, until he has to catch a flight home to the US. She agrees, and they go out to visit the sights of Budapest together and get to know each other better, until the sun rises.
The beauty of this film is in the simplicity of its story. Before Sunrise is all about Jesse and Céline, and the development of their relationship as they know that time is ticking away and they inevitably have to leave one another for separate destinations. Minor characters may be featured in the story, but the film always returns to Jesse and Céline. I entered this film’s world thinking it would probably be a typical romantic story about a nice young guy meeting a beautiful French girl on the train, and that it would devolve into a sappy and unrealistic love story. I was totally wrong. The romance in this film is delivered in such an authentic and congruent way that I actually felt slightly heartbroken by the end, as if I was anticipating the long distance love the two might experience and the complications involved with that (especially in 1995, pre-Facebook and other more convenient ways of communicating across the globe).
Lots of people might think this is a film with an unrealistic premise – boy meets girl on train, convinces her to do something impulsive, and they end up becoming very affectionate for one another. But it’s unexpectedly believable, due in part to Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s performances, and through an honest and complex script that shows more than it tells, despite the many conversations we hear between the two characters. I’ve never been much of an Ethan Hawke fan, but I think this film changed my perception of him. Whilst he does look like your usual pretty boy lead character, his performance is layered and complex. The combination of the cynical outer shell of his character with the need to be loved that he covers up is pretty sweet, and is countered by Céline’s romantic and idealistic exterior and internal doubts about the lasting capabilities of relationships that becomes apparent as their relationship develops. Julie Delpy is wonderful in this film. I loved her in Three Colours: White (1994), and I loved her just as much in this. Céline is portrayed as a balance to Jesse, which is greatly enhanced by the fact that the actors have such a strong chemistry with one another.
This central relationship is set within the greater context of the beautiful city of Vienna, which the couple explores. The direction and cinematography is stunning, but then again, you don’t have to do much to make this grand and historic city look amazing. It seems that everywhere the couple goes, they see or do or are surrounded by something unique and interesting. However, there was something about the way that the couple was situated within each scene that made my eyes go straight to them rather than their surrounding environment. That’s a testament to the acting capabilities of Hawke and Delpy and their chemistry together, that my eye would go directly to them rather than to the romantic European city in which they’re wandering.
I wonder if people with a less focused attention span for cinema would be able to tolerate this film, though. The approach to the story is so stripped back and character-driven, and a lot of the ‘drama’ occurs as a result of lengthy conversations between the two lovers. I know I can tolerate it, but some people might find it tedious, particularly if they’re used to more constructed/melodramatic romantic films, or silly rom coms. And I wonder whether people would find this story or relationship romantic at all if those are the films they’re used to seeing.
The next film after this one is Before Sunset (2004), set nine years after this film, and then the Oscar-nominated Before Midnight (2013), set after a further nine years. I am so excited to see the rest of the trilogy and to see the development of Jesse and Céline’s relationship. After this film I just want to see this couple back together again. This is probably one of the purest romantic films I’ve seen, and I’m not talking about purity in a moralistic sense. Before Sunrise takes the concept of a developing and time-limited romance and boils it down to its most simplistic elements, which makes it paradoxically much more powerful. Before Sunrise is such a beautiful film, and I absolutely loved it.
Watch the trailer here.
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