Before Sunrise (1995) is possibly the best date movie I’ve ever seen in my life. In October of 1995, nine months after this movie came out, I imagine a whole generation of Before Sunrise babies were born in the United States conceived in the brilliant sunrise of reflected love. If every dating couple didn’t walk around whatever town or city they were in, then they broke up within the week. I was inspired to see this movie since the series is now becoming a trilogy with the release of Before Midnight (2013) in a few weeks. The series, with the sequel Before Sunset (2004), is highly regarded by critics and viewers alike. The posters for these movies have never encouraged me as they looked like soapy melodramas with cycles of passion and hate. This bears no resemblance to the movie. I was misled by Ethan Hawke’s long mane and artistic facial hair along with Julie Delpy’s death cold stare (or mutual longing angst in the other poster). This movie is coy, hopeful, and warm with only occasional wafts of melancholy. Love and death, but mostly love.
Jesse (Hawke) is on a train to Vienna. He bought a Eurorail pass and has spent the last two weeks watching Europe from the rail car window. Celine (Delpy) is in the same car, coming from Budapest after a visit with her grandmother. When a pair of Germans start arguing, Celine moves to the other end of the car (where sits Jesse) so that she can read her book. Jesse strikes up a conversation that moves to the lounge car and an eventual invitation. “You should get off the train with me here in Vienna and come check out the town.” He’s got a flight the next morning and he’s basically run out of money so he was just going to walk around and, because they have a connection, he wants her to join him. She does and they spend the day and night walking the streets of Vienna and having a long conversation.
About thirty minutes into the movie, I wondered whether I might become disinterested or bothered by the conversation. This has all the hallmarks of a gimmick. Little or no apparent plot against a pretty city with winding, cobblestone streets. But it rarely, if ever, feels that way. Most of the movie rolls over you with an interesting pair presenting interesting perspectives of life, love, death, and other assorted observations. The tone of these conversations is what makes this tolerable. The pair speak only an inch above normal, college-educated people. This isn’t Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). They reflect the 90’s perfectly: mostly disillusioned, but hopeful, skeptical, but ready to believe, not religious, but spiritual. New romantics. In other words, a man and a woman have an honest conversation.
What makes it watchable and interesting is the growth of the relationship. Their little discomforts in the beginning don’t go away completely. They still have to use devices to give themselves permission to be honest to one another. But the way they look at each other and the reasons why they can’t keep looking change over the hour and forty-five minutes. The way their relationship spans through the night in a large, romantic city give the movie a timelessness to explore a budding love. There’s a great line towards the end, after the sun comes up, where Jesse says “We’re back in real time.” Very observant.
I assumed that a great deal of the film was improvised, but that isn’t the case, strictly speaking. It is inspired by improvisation and polished by director Richard Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan. This is a little surprising because the pair, Hawk and Delpy, swing between honest moments and weak acting. Whenever they have to deliver a line, more heavily loaded than usual, it’s a little painful. Normal people will sometimes try on a ponderous observation that feels profound and look like idiots, but this movie is mostly real, so when their heavy lines look forced is it supposed to? The awkwardness of their relationship is acceptable, and understandable, but their eloquence is an absolute necessity either in their looks or words because the premise of the film, as I see it, is that the characters are honest with each other. If they aren’t, how is an audience supposed to know when they’ve lied? We’re all strangers here. That’s not to say that everything they say has to be true, but the characters have to believe it. Midway through the movie when they agree that this is only for one night, the audience knows what’s really going on, what they’re really saying because we’ve observed everything we need to judge their words. And I’ll say that the actors nailed every important scene. But around the edges, with some of the little persona-building moments, they flubbed it.
The music was lovely—you can’t beat a classical soundtrack—but the look (cinematography by Lee Daniel) was not quite perfect. Caveat: I saw this through streaming online with a less-than-perfect internet connection. That said, I expect more beauty out of my low-ish budget movies. The progression of digital photography has spoiled me completely. Before Sunrise doesn’t have a “look”. There’s style—film the motion of the city and pan to our heroes—but it lacks clarity and closeness. Compare this with Midnight in Paris (2011) (with almost 10x the budget, I know), with the camera tracking slowly with the characters underlining their leisurely state rather than the hand-held feeling in Before Sunrise. But not every movie is about the camera.
Before Sunrise is definitely worth owning, but whether to get it or wait until June and buy it with Before Sunset in a two-pack. Or do you wait until Christmas and get all three in the inevitable three-pack?