The Screening Room: Before Sunrise

In All, Movies by Kyu

Walk with me for a while? We have a little time to talk, before you have to go. And we certainly have something to talk about. This is Vienna in the summer. It’s a beautiful day. It’s 1995, and my flight home doesn’t leave until tomorrow. This is Before Sunrise, and this is The Screening Room. Welcome.

Rewatching Richard Linklater’s seminal ’90s indie flick, it feels like this movie encapsulated my entire romantic worldview when I was younger. The idea of connection being easy sometimes, of romance without Hollywood contrivance or artificial conflict, of love that was self-aware and intelligent and coy and sincere. There’s an idealism to it that’s striking in its sincerity, particularly in the context of the era. Mid-90s romances were, by and large, high concept, big budget affairs featuring giant stars in improbable situations. Meg Ryan falls in love with Tom Hanks’ voice on a radio call-in show. Nicolas Cage shares a lottery ticket with his waitress. Hugh Grant experiences five big social gatherings in a row. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie; but there’s a limit to how strongly I can empathize with people who are nothing like me in stories that are nothing like my life. But Before Sunrise is about two ordinary people who meet on a train and decide to hang out together. Their chief joy is talking to one another; their main problem is that they live far apart. It’s true to life.

This is especially effective when expressed through Linklater’s naturalistic filmmaking. Each location Jesse and Celine visit is an ordinary place in Vienna–a bar, a restaurant, an old graveyard, a cafe, the street outside a musician’s house… One wonders if Linklater simply walked around the city one day, scouting whatever locations he thought looked or seemed most interesting within range of the train station before writing his script. Even the people they run into seem less like actors than passerby who happened to wander into the film.The young lovers compare the day and night they spend together to a dream or a fairy tale, but even though it’s a warm fantasy of instant connection, it’s also a sustained capturing of a single time and place, in what almost feels like real time. And as much as the film is an ode to Vienna and to young love, it’s also an ode to cinematic “business,” of the things that happen while your actors are saying their lines. There’s a scene where Celine notices a rabbit in a field and comments on it, and it doesn’t seem scripted at all; another scene finds the actors running a conversation about their respective exes while, it seems, actually playing pinball and switching out every time one of them loses a ball. (I don’t know if you have to have made films to realize how cool that is, but it’s such a cool way to do things.)

At a certain point watching the film I became aware that it was just one interesting, perfectly edited little vignette after another in an astonishingly unbroken chain. The man by the river who sells a poem by way of begging; the graveyard where Celine revisits a young woman’s tombstone, noting that she is older now but the dead girl hasn’t aged; the moment in the music store where they take turns looking shyly at one another; the scene in the restaurant where they talk through their feelings and anxieties through pretending to call their friends back home. Even the late scene where Jesse imitates Dylan Thomas reciting a poem shouldn’t work, should be too cute or too arch, but it does. Piece by lovely piece, Linklater builds a relationship between two characters right in front of us, patiently and well. So many movies take shortcuts. Before Sunrise is the scenic route.

In the end, it’s not the direction or cinematography that makes this an enduring classic, it’s the characters. The movie wouldn’t succeed at all if we didn’t fall in love with them while they’re falling for each other, but we do–or at least I do. I love Jesse’s sense of humor, his endearing combination of cynic and daydreamer. I love the way Celine is so thoughtful and so expressive of her thoughts, conveying the heart of a particular idea or emotion with precise concision. I love the way they are together, nervous at first but increasingly more comfortable sharing, laughing, wandering through the city. I love the way they have a youthful sense of death, of time fleeting, the way they can imagine looking back on themselves in their old age.

And I love the way they bandy real ideas back and forth, anecdotes about the world, snippets of philosophy, history, personal musings on life and how to live it. This mode of storytelling–I’m not even sure there’s a name for it–is something Linklater had tried before and would return to later, most of all in his Waking Life (where Jesse and Celine make an appearance). But as interesting as those films are from an experimental point of view, I tend to think Before Sunrise perfects the form, because Linklater is able to conjure an incredible range of ideas and meaningful concepts out of the same two characters, and because so often what they’re saying is obliquely or not about who those characters are, how they’re feeling, and what choices they have and will make. When Jesse gives his theory about the way the historical global population explosion must represent a devaluing of souls through reincarnation, he’s also talking about the way he himself feels unfinished and immature, undervalued and often unwanted. When Celine says, “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between,” she’s speaking to the importance of the connection they share, particularly to a girl with no religion but plenty of spirituality. And all of it is in one way or another informed by Linklater’s worldview, by his interest in time and human lives and the observation of who we are and how we change.

That’s one last reason why this film is so special–that it’s the start of a series of films which track Jesse and Celine over the course of their lives. Linklater pokes a little fun at the concept in Before Sunrise, when Celine acknowledges the absurdity of their situation by saying, “Maybe we’re only good at brief encounters, walking around in European cities in warm climate.” Linklater’s entire career is full of narrative experiments, from the pioneering animated-over-film movies Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly to Tape, a real-time drama shot on video, to Slacker‘s aimless wandering from one story to the next, but the Before trilogy is probably his best–better even than Boyhood, which takes a similar tack over the course of a single movie. Looking in on Jesse and Celine years later each time for one day is like getting a fictionalized version of the British Up documentary series. You get to see how they grow up, how they change or don’t, how their romance affects them, and it makes all three films incredibly affecting. In the last, Before Midnight, we feel the weight of years informing every line and glance between them; in this first film, the impact of their romance is magnified by us knowing how it all turns out. Every film is, in its own way, a document out of time, a snapshot of a particular moment that is separate and endures, waiting forever to be seen and studied. Few films seem to know this, and reward returning to that time again and again.

When I first saw this I must have been younger than Jesse and Celine, 16 or 17, I think, and I’m sure I admired them, envied them their thoughtfulness. Now I’m older than they were then, although they’ve outpaced me in subsequent films, and it’s odd to look back at their (perhaps naive) sense of hopefulness, one that I don’t really share anymore. Not that I’ve become so cynical, necessarily; it’s just that I’ve learned that things aren’t always so easy or so perfect. And I know I don’t feel as strongly as I did about anything, really, when I was younger. I used to get very upset about some things, and other times I used to feel, as Jesse describes himself here, rapturous. But in the decade hence, life has just… evened out.

That’s what the young lovers fear most, on the cusp of their one and final morning in Vienna–that their connection, so powerful over the course of this single day and night, will peter out as time and distance take their toll. The plan they make to avoid this is foolish, but they couldn’t act any other way, defined so strongly as they are by their belief that everything will work out in the end. Whether it does or not is technically answered by the sequel to this movie, Before Sunset; but I think it’s also possible to regard that as just one potential future. The ambiguity here still remains if you want it to, if what you want to do is wonder.

I know you have to leave, and so do I. I’m almost through. I just wanted to tell you that I think this movie is very special. Really, I’m reminded of the joke from Ghostbusters. “They don’t make ’em like they used to, huh?” “No! They never made them like this!” Even as romances go–hell, even as Linklater movies go–Before Sunrise is uncommonly gentle. It’s sweet and real and sad. And like Jesse and Celine do, it’s hard not to regret midway through that the day must come to an end, at least for now. You want to reach out and stop them from moving on. But they only have a day. The sun rises, and the trains leave, and that’s that. And like them, what we’re left with is a memory of a dream of a person we used to be, or a person we used to love.

That’s what I think, anyway. And we’re out of time. Got a flight to catch. Au revoir, and see you later. But we’ll meet here in two weeks, won’t we, and talk about Before Sunset. At least, I hope we will.