Before Sunrise: Twenty-Five Years After Their One Night

Before Sunrise is a love potion spilled on a film reel and projected into the silver screen, with a minimalist plot, lengthy reflective conversations and an unrivaled chemistry between its two protagonists, and us the viewers. I first saw it at the age of sixteen and immediately fell in love with it, and of course I’ve seen it, and the rest of the trilogy, dozens of times since then, so writing about it for its 25th anniversary is almost a moral obligation to me. Richard Linklater, inspired by a night he himself spent with a woman wondering the streets and conversing, managed to craft one of the most touching and dream-like yet relatable romances ever put on screen, and across the following eighteen years, continued to deliver us with news regarding the star-crossed lovers, and as the tale aged and matured, drifting away from fanciful idealism and opting for bittersweet realism, we aged with it and accepted the fate it offered us, but still we are always glad to have the Vienna of that night to revisit time and time again.

Before Sunrise tells the story of Jesse, a young American visiting his girlfriend in Madrid only to split up with her and travel around Europe for two weeks, meeting Celine, on his last night there. After they meet on the train and strike up a conversation, he manages to convince her to leave the train with him and spend the night walking around Vienna. The plot is minimal but what gives the story its livelihood is the dialogue. From the moment they start talking, it is one long conversation till the very end, covering everything from the existence of a deity, memories of childhood, perceptions of the outside world and dreams and hopes. It is expertly written both by Linklater and Kim Krizan, it feels like it’s out of a fairytale or an epic poem while at the same time managing to feel casual and everyday-like. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s performances here are stellar and, in my opinion, the strongest of their careers, managing to amplify the film’s already-strong spell and fortifying its ability to transfer the viewer into the magical world they shortly inhabited.

Another very important ingredient to the success of a story and a film this ambitious is the setting. During one of their many reflective conversations, Jesse and Celine discuss how their time shouldn’t even be happening, how nobody knows even where they are, and how that is why the whole ordeal feels so surreal. The setting of films like these not only permits romance, but highly encourages it. We notice it throughout the film, every character or event they encounter only serves to fortify their connection. And speaking of Before Sunrise’s setting, I have to point out that it is expertly crafted and feels almost as alive as its inhabitants. That is achieved through an adjustment of an old cinematic technic, and that is the establishing shot. Establishing shots here are used generously, but the twist is, they don’t showcase the world, but its inhabitants. When we enter the train for the first time, we see passengers conversing, arguing and taking on mundane activities, it is so real it makes us feel right there. The same feat is attempted and achieved throughout the course of the film, in cafes, bars, restaurants, everywhere.

The reason Richard Linklater chose to write the script with Krizan is wanting to tell a story with two very different characters, a man and a woman who are equally strong so that when they clash, and they do so often, we are still offered two sides to the issue. Jesse and Celine are not the same, in fact, they are very different, he is a cynic attempting a romance, and she is a romantic with doubts about everything, and that renders their conversations very interesting, philosophical and naturally ambiguous. While on the subject of ambiguity, the ending couldn’t be more so. It is, as Jesse says in the sequel Before Sunset (2004), a perfect test to see if the spectator is a romantic or a cynic.

Before Sunrise, and the two sequels it spawned, offered us a story that we can go back to numerous times for courage, hope and wisdom. While attempting to describe it, I either find myself endlessly babbling or at a loss for words, so I can never really say how much it means to me, but I hope I managed to succeed here, even partially.


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