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Before Sunrise

May 1, 2020

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

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

Review: Richard Linklater’s magnificent diptych, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, is the ultimate in pure cinema: a magical marriage of form to content, and where the films’ heady cocktail of romance and poignancy seeps out of its de facto real-time method.

Focusing specifically on Before Sunrise, part of its beauty is the simplicity and resonance of its premise: a 24-hour jaunt with two young tourists, Jesse and Céline, who meet 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 scenario – 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. In fact, time – a classic theme of Linklater’s cinema – is viscerally felt by the end. When Jesse and Céline part company at the train station, it almost feels like they are saying goodbye to us too: us, the unseen witnesses to the magic of their tryst.

Another potential fault-line in the premise of Before Sunrise could have been its reliance on a cycle of conversational skits (various anecdotes and whimsicalities). Conversely though, the film’s immersion in language and ideas 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 alchemy of their spontaneous meeting, and sharing their youthful hopes and fears 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 social 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.

Before Sunrise is also a great existential work and a poignant documenter of the power of those fleeting, but transcendent, connections and experiences we accrue through a life. It reminded me of a credo articulated by Jordan Peterson in an online lecture on relationships, where he conservatively disavowed any form of romantic connection that isn’t bolstered by time, commitment and some form of societal badge – marriage, children, weathering a lifetime together. While I don’t necessarily dispute endurance as a valuable characteristic in measuring emotional worth, what a film like Before Sunrise champions is that some of the most meaningful moments in our lives can be more sensual and ephemeral: a look, a touch, a feeling, a few short hours. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.

And it’s the film’s submission to the vitality of the senses and the now that is the key to its beauty. From those first, furtive glances between Jesse and Céline on the train, and the clever shift to Jesse’s POV as he plucks up the courage to act on that eye contact, to the immeasurably lovely moment on the morning they depart where Jesse and Céline hold each other’s gaze (in a sense, fulfilling the prophecy of Jesse’s earlier anecdote that Quaker weddings are wordless events where the couple simply look into each other’s eyes), Linklater seems to be conferring an almost ‘paradise lost’ status on Jesse and Céline here. It’s one of the reason why the Before series is such an ingenious experiment – it is a commentary on time itself; the mitigations that come with ageing, and the poignancy of our transient lives. (May 2020)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Adam Batstone permalink
    May 13, 2020 8:37 am

    Excellent review of a truly memorable film

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