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Before Sunrise

September 19, 2011

Before Sunrise (1995)
Director: Richard Linklater
Actors: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

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Synopsis: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delphy) are two young backpackers who meet spontaneously on a train, and decide to spend a day together in Vienna.

Review: I may be biased here but I find Richard Linklater’s magnificent diptych, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, as romantic, poignant and magical a pair of films as the cinema has to offer. The premise of Before Sunrise is remarkably simple: a near real-time jaunt with two young tourists, Jesse and Celine, who meet randomly on a train and decide impulsively to spend the day together in Vienna before Jesse has to catch a flight back to the US the following morning. On paper, what might seem flimsy about the premise – that it’s just two young people walking and talking around a European city – actually proves to be the film’s greatest strength, as it lends their relationship an authenticity and aching sense of compressed time.

The only real criticism of Before Sunrise is its reliance on a repetitive chain of cutesy set-ups and anecdotes, but conversely, the film’s submission to dialogue is its key feature and lure. For after all, this is a film about the giddy rapture to be found in simple conversation, of two young people from different countries, breathlessly embracing the magic of their spontaneous rendez-vous, and sharing their youthful hopes, fears and world views in a necessarily transient period of time. Perhaps part of the problem with the reception of this film, particularly with a contemporary audience, is that the narrative isn’t imbued with any sense of cynicism, and takes place in an age before the internet, mobile phone technology and mass media have made the world so much smaller, but also a less mysterious and wondrous place, and where language (and by logical extension, the capacity to formulate ideas) has become eroded by the culture of these new technologies.

There is also cinematic craft beneath the romantic gloss and sparkle of Before Sunrise‘s subject matter. The chemistry between leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is immense, probably helped by the fact that they were able to establish much of the dialogue themselves and also because the concentrated plot dynamic allows the reprised technique of ‘acting’ to slip into something much more recognisably real and naturalistic. It’s one of the few films where you feel as if you have been on a journey with the two protagonists, and again, that’s due to the success of its de facto real-time structure. And finally, though Before Sunrise is great in its own regard, it also acts as extremely poignant counterpoint to the world-weary mitigations of its characters in the thirty-something ‘sequel’, Before Sunset. (September 2011)

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