Before Sunrise [1995]: A beautiful love poem

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When a young filmmaker named Richard Linklater visited Philadelphia after shooting his debut film in 1989, he met a woman in a toy store and spent the night talking to her until early morning. Linklater’s memorable experience ended up becoming the inspiration for one of his most personal, heart-warming and endearing films, Before Sunrise (1995).

Before Sunrise is a romantic drama film starring Ethan Hawke (Training Day) and Julie Delpy (2 Days in Paris). The film follows Hawke as an American man named Jesse who meets a French woman named Celine, played by Delpy, on a train from Budapest. When the train stops at Vienna, the duo decides to spend the entire day getting to know each other while sight-seeing in the beautiful capital of Austria. Throughout the film, Jesse and Celine discuss their past relationships and ambitions and eventually end up falling in love, making the most of their time together before they separate the next morning.

Before Sunrise is the first instalment of a trilogy, which includes the sequels Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). It should be noted that Jesse and Celine also appear in Linklater’s dream-like rotoscope animation Waking Life (2001), in which a dream sequence shows the couple talking in bed, years after the events of Before Sunrise.

Also Read: Before Midnight [2013]: Mature, Poignant and Heartbreaking

Like his previous films, Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), Linklater uses time as a major theme in Before Sunrise as the events of the film are set in one day. Although Jesse and Celine spend the entire day together in a 101-minute film, we feel like we are watching these events as it happens, in real-time. Linklater revisits the characters every nine years in the sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight which are also set in one day.

The first sequel of the trilogy, Before Sunset takes place in real-time because the events that occur with Jesse and Celine in one afternoon happens within the same amount of time as the length of the film. Linklater experimented further with time later in his career by making Boyhood (2014), an Academy Award nominated picture that follows the life of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) over the course of twelve years. Ethan Hawke also stars in Boyhood, as he has been a frequent collaborator of Linklater since Before Sunrise.

When it comes to aesthetics, Linklater often shoots his films in continuing long takes with minimal editing. These techniques used in Before Sunrise emphasises the real-time as the camera follows Jesse and Celine walking around Vienna for several minutes, capturing every bit of their conversations without any edited interruptions. The narrative in many Linklater films are often structured in an abstract manner. In Slacker and Dazed and Confused, there is no major plot as it focuses mainly on the characters and their point of view. This also applies to Before Sunrise because there is no specific storyline and we focus only on Jesse and Celine.

In addition to that, Linklater relies heavily on the dialogue rather than the action. The dialogue between the characters’ flow smoothly in a naturalistic way. Their conversations may seem improvised but they are scripted, which proves the excellent and authentic performance by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Linklater’s dialogue in Before Sunrise is very different to the dialogue used in films made by Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino because the characters form intelligent discussions, conversing in subjects such as art and philosophy, rather than pop culture.

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Linklater’s cinematic trademarks are shown in a scene from the film where Jesse and Celine get to know each other by having a Q&A session on a tram. The scene starts with an establishing pan shot of a tram driving on the track to show us the duo’s current location that they are visiting in Vienna. The scene then cuts to a mid-two-shot of the couple inside the tram as they sit down. The camera stays on them for nearly five minutes as they quiz each other about their first sexual experience, the things that make them angry and their thoughts in reincarnation.

There is an adorable moment where Jesse reaches his hand to move the hair away from Celine’s eyes while she is talking but quickly moves his hand back when she looks up at him. Many eagle-eyed fans of the Before trilogy may notice this little moment happening again in Before Sunset, where this time Celine reaches her hand to move the hair away from Jesse’s eyes as he is talking to her in a car. The tram scene ends with a long shot of the duo getting off the tram, on their way to their next location. For a film that is set in a foreign city, this entire scene makes us pay attention to the characters rather than what is happening around them and makes us learn more about their personalities during their Q&A.

Ethan Hawke delivers a remarkable performance as Jesse. His charming intelligence, imagination and comedic timing make him a great male protagonist who is somewhat like Linklater in real life (from what I have seen in his interviews.) As a fan of Linklater, I have noticed that he often depicts the male protagonists in his films as ‘’slackers’’ such as musician/’’teacher’’ Dewey Finn (Jack Black) from School of Rock (2003) and high school stoner Ron Slater (Rory Cochrane) in Dazed and Confused. Even though he is imaginative and intelligent, Jesse is also portrayed as a ‘‘slacker’’ who ended his relationship with his girlfriend in Madrid and has no clue why he is travelling to Vienna. Aside from this being a Linklater trope, Hawke was known as the poster boy of Generation X in the 1990s, due to his role as a rebellious musician with the ‘’slacker’’ persona in Ben Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites (1994), prior to Before Sunrise. In a way, Hawke’s image at the time makes his character more appealing in the film.

Julie Delpy shines as the enchanting Celine, who is portrayed as a free-spirited graduate student, travelling from Budapest after visiting her grandmother. She is a very independent and strong-minded woman, which is refreshing to watch as she is different from women who are usually portrayed as the clichéd ‘’damsel in distress’’ role in romance films. Celine may seem intimidating at times but that is mainly because she is very passionate about her thoughts and opinions when talking to Jesse. Hawke and Delpy’s chemistry together as Jesse and Celine is very genuine and uplifting. They could make me laugh and cry with their performances; they are a brilliant couple to root for. It is obvious that they are great friends in real life seeing as they have continued with the story every nine years.

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One of my favourite Jesse and Celine moments that truly made me fall in love with Before Sunrise is the scene where they visit a record store at the beginning of the film. In this sequence, Celine picks up a copy of Kath Bloom’s album on vinyl and goes to the listening booth with Jesse to listen to Bloom’s song ‘’Come Here’’. When the music starts playing in the booth, we see a two-shot of the couple awkwardly standing next to each other as they listen to the song. Jesse is seen looking at Celine but quickly looks away before Celine catches his gaze. Celine then looks at Jesse but quickly looks down before Jesse looks at her again. This adorable and innocent moment continues back and forth during the scene. The wonderful folksy music track by Bloom enhances the atmosphere of this sequence as she softly sings about being with someone who is shy but assures this person that she is not in a hurry to wait for them.

To me, the record store scene is very important to the story because it is one of the only times that two people who are usually talkative become suddenly quiet (which is very unlikely for a Linklater film). Without Jesse and Celine talking, the scene still tells us so much just by watching their expressions and listening to the song. It immediately gives us a glimpse of their feelings for each other which is explored later in the film.

Before Sunrise is a captivating piece of work by Richard Linklater; it has become one of my favourite films of all time. The dialogue, the music, the development of the characters and the beautiful backdrop of Vienna made the film very appealing to me because it does not follow the conventions of a typically cheesy romance film and the characters have a strong presence on screen. It is a film that I will always revisit and discuss with other cinephiles. I would highly recommend not just this film, but the entire trilogy to people who enjoy watching emotional romance dramas. Some of the best films I have ever seen are always based on the filmmakers’ real-life experiences which is why I will always be grateful that Linklater walked into the toy store that night in Philadelphia.

Author: Hasena Ali.

Born and raised in Oxford, United Kingdom and currently studying Film at London South Bank University, Hasena has a love for Netflix, Books, Food and Leonardo DiCaprio. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws inspired her to make films and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street inspired her to write about films.