Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video (Rent: £3.49; Buy: £7.99), Sky Movies (Rent: £3.49; Buy: £7.99), YouTube (Rent: £3.49; Buy: £7.99)
About an hour into watching Before Sunrise, I found myself thinking that director Richard Linklater had done an amazing job of making Vienna seem surreal and dreamlike. It was around ten minutes later that the two main characters started discussing exactly the same thing.
Before Sunrise, much like the films that came before it, takes place over the course of a single day. Much like Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993), it is now a cult classic, and doesn’t so much tell a story as it does observe people bumbling around and interacting with one another.
Before Sunrise opens in a cross-country train running from somewhere else in Europe to Paris. Almost immediately, American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) strikes up a conversation with French Céline (Julie Delpy). About ten minutes in, after a brief conversation, Jesse gets off at his stop - Vienna. However, he then turns back to convince Céline to spend the day with him in the city, until his flight leaves the following morning.
In the hour and a half or so that follow, we watch Jesse and Céline bumble around Vienna, talking about everything from sex and religion to gender roles and homelessness. Nothing of note really happens. The two walk. They talk. They drink. And that is it.
For those who aren’t familiar with Linklater’s style, this might sound unusual. And it is. But it works, perhaps only because the dialogue is so well-written and amazingly relatable. The screenplay was principally written by Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan, but Hollywood mythology states that Hawke and Delpy pitched in with a number of uncredited rewrites. They were subsequently drafted to help write the screenplay for both sequels, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013).
It would be easy for a film of this format to feel self-indulgent or boring; even masters of dialogue like Tarantino and Scorsese know well enough to break up the talking with some action. But Before Sunrise is almost exclusively a film about two people talking to each other for more than an hour and a half, and somehow it works.
It also deserves some kudos for its technical work; the cinematography is subtly amazing. For me, the best example of this is a montage just before the ending credits where we are shown empty frames, chairs, and doorways under daylight; all spots where Jesse and Celine had stood, sat, or walked just a few hours earlier.
I do have gripes with the film that cost it the fifth star. And they’re not with the dialogue, the directing, or the acting, but with one of the characters. Delpy’s Céline is incredible, but I found myself really wondering how much I sympathised with Hawke’s character, Jesse, throughout the story.
The idea, I think, is that Jesse is a romantic hiding as a cynic. It might just be that the character hasn’t aged particularly well, but at times he feels gratingly insincere and pompous. He’s not endearing in the same way that Céline is, and much less interesting as a result.
But then again, maybe that’s part of Linklater’s aim; maybe he doesn’t want to show us two perfect characters. Maybe he doesn’t always want them to be sympathetic; he wants them to be human.
Before Sunrise is a perplexing film. Almost 100 years of movie-making precedent would have us believe that Linklater’s formula should be rejected by the masses as boring. There is no conflict, no action in this film; not in the traditional sense, at least.
But over the past 25 years, both audiences and critics alike have looked past this and celebrated a film that is quirky, thoughtful, and unashamedly relatable. For that, Before Sunrise remains one of the great modern romances, and arguably one of Linklater’s greatest efforts as a director.