Before Sunrise (1995)

before sunrise review

Before Sunrise (1995) Directed by Richard Linklater

I want to live in a world where all modern romantic dramas are like Before Sunrise. But of course that’s not possible, because if it were, the one-of-a-kind authenticity of this life-changing experience would not be the same; its effects are as special as they are inimitable, as enduring as they are exceptional, to be treasured as an indelible and particular moment in the 1990s.

Before Sunrise’s morphology of love is a supreme study of human relationships as seen through the spontaneity of two organic performances that design an entire conversational drama that feels like life itself. Richard Linklater directs, and co-writes with Kim Krizan, this genuine film that has an abundance of questions about the philosophy of love to discuss under a scrupulous cinematographic formula that consists of three fundamental ingredients for its minimalist practice, the first and probably the most essential, the two central performances, the second, the syntactic language of its sober formality, and last but not least, the improvisational gestures in conjunction with the placid energy emanating from the natural dialogues. With this system of filmmaking, Linklater portrays the romantic complexities of a self-consciously complicated generation; but he makes it look so simple and affable that both the external and internal impromptu beauty of the sentimental expressions elucidates generational conundrums with intuitive compassion.

Before Sunrise hits you on two different planes with flawless synchronicity. It can be as intellectually provocative as it is emotionally cynical. Indeed, cynicism is one of the most salient protagonists within the personalities of both main characters, though it’s more of an innocuous sarcasm, but still, this film has cynical properties that can transform your positions regarding the romantic and the perspectives society imposes on you about the ideals of love.

True to its simplicity, the plot is laconic in its synopsis, yet extensive in its colloquy depth. Céline and Jesse are the two characters that destiny unites and separates in equal measures, both are young strangers, both in their twenties, and traveling by train. Céline is a French university student who is on her way back to Paris, and Jesse is an American guy who is traveling to Vienna to catch a flight to the United States. By the providential coincidences of life, an irritable couple find themselves arguing, preventing Céline from reading calmly and forcing her to change places on the train, she sits in a seat parallel to Jesse, who is also reading. The two exchange a couple of words, and end up eating together. Upon arriving in Vienna, Jesse proposes to Céline to go with him and spend an entire night exploring the city, she accepts and they both head out for what will surely be the most decisive, profound and beautiful night they have ever had in their lives. The dynamics of the drama seem composed like a social ritual, each situation building to the predictable, yet the nuanced writing delves into what romantic dramas usually exclude. The immediately congenial and socially verbose Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, and the heavenly pretty Céline, played by Julie Delpy, two performances impossible to ignore, synonymous with dramatic balance, and an astonishing chemistry that redefines the craft of acting and its role in the interpretation of a screenplay.

The focus is precise and incisive with the two captivating characters, but Vienna is also a visually evocative place to witness the fortuitous situations that both characters go through. Usually, something that continually strikes me when watching this film, the ambient sounds are either isolated from the spatiality of the characters or sonically reduced to centralize or rather, create a singular universe in Jesse and Céline’s infatuation with each other.

Justifiably, this circular and alienating treatment given to the couple, has a very interesting purpose; to begin with, the fact of obsessively concentrating the camera and sounds only in the fluidity of their conversations, quickly gives autonomy to the emotions that both characters exchange, thus giving a highly realistic materialization of what it feels like to dialogue with the person you like, that delightful feeling of forgetting about the existence of the surroundings and being aware only of the emotional connectivity you have with the other protagonist of the conversation. These social monologues are filmed in graceful two-shots, straight shot/reverse shot, and tranquil tracking shots that densify the non-intervention of the form with the organization of the performances; there is no distracting, superfluous camerawork or stylistic flair, it is a film thoroughly devoted to documenting an interaction and the unhurried falling-in-love of two people.

The pulsating power of the interactions has in its philosophical vocalization a challenging subtext, and part of what hides its linguistics is an exercise in subliminal questions. In context and concepts alike, these straightforward musings unfold in the quotidian, in the ordinariness of a conversation that we have probably all had with someone, whether with a stranger or with someone in your family or friends, yet the originality of the dialogues that Jesse and Céline share is that they are elaborated as a scheme, one theme leads to another and so in sequence more and more keep appearing. Before Sunrise’s greatest triumph is to make the conversational art unique, lyrical and emotionally resonant, it is shown as a curiously complex act within such a relatively simple situation. Linklater’s consummate comprehension of respecting the spaces in the dialogue and directing the profusion of nuanced emotions positions him as one of the few filmmakers who have managed to give true-to-life, bittersweet and intelligent textures to modern romantic drama, an indisputable fact that should be remembered for what this film is, great cinema.

The absurdities of love in a society that makes everything more problematic are exposed here. And the level of identification that the audience can have with these two characters is immense, perhaps that’s why watching and listening to lengthy conversations becomes a necessity; we all need to be heard, but seldom do we have the opportunity to say what we feel in such a pleasant and non-judgmental atmosphere.

Before Sunrise is a verbally dexterous masterpiece, meaningful for many reasons, but the main one is that today it is more significant because it articulates communication, social interactivity and spontaneous affection as a lost art.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.