Before Sunrise (15)

Jan 11, 2006
Cranbrook Film Society

Before Sunrise is a charming, urbane and sophisticated film that captures the magic of young love and desire. At least if does for the young anyway. Some student reviews of the film comment that this story of a chance meeting on a train and one night of romance will leave you “eager to kiss the face off the first person you see”, or that you should “see it with someone you love”. Even better – see it by yourself and pick up a total stranger in the lobby afterwards! Sadly, few of us at the CFS are likely to take that advice.

And yet the film really works brilliantly, I think, for a middle-aged audience, too, who know how fickle and opaque feelings can be. We can all be, as Chaucer put it of men, “April when they woo, September when they wed”.

The film opens with a middle-aged, and probably married, couple rowing. They are German-speaking and there are no subtitles. We listen to the clues of tone, gesture and expression to try to decode their dispute. As we watch Jesse, an American “doing Europe” (Ethan Hawke) and Celine, a young Frenchwoman (Julie Delphy), get to “know” each other maybe that first couple are there to remind us that we generally have little idea of what really goes on between couples, and sometimes, especially when we’re young, even within that couple we are one half of!

The film’s setting in Vienna shows Richard Linklater, the director, a native of Austin, Texas, wants to make a “European” style film. Unlike mainstream Hollywood where every scene must move the plot on, here each scene is allowed to breathe and develop its own character and charm. For me there are lots of echoes of Federico Fellini. As the great Italian director often does, Linklater sets his action through the night with its promise of escape and a magical transcendence of the ordinary workaday world. The acting is superb, although I wonder if any of us are ever that consistently articulate. Jesse’s charming chat up line to tempt Celine off the train is a metaphysical conceit John Donne would have been proud of.

The narrative enigma that floats around the edge of the episodes is will they have, should they have, more than just one night together? So whilst we are charmed, a middle-aged audience is also wondering would they make a good couple? She seems more grown up, less romantic, than him. She has a European’s angst about making a contribution socially, politically. He thinks rebellion could only mean falling out with your parents. But what makes a good couple anyway? Linklater makes us watch them closely. We see them avoid each other’s eyes, but we also see how they, unconsciously perhaps, avoid each other’s meanings. Their gestures convey desire but also betray flashes of impatience even anger.

A way of looking at the film might be that it shows how “romance” keeps interrupting the natural process of our really getting to know each other. Vienna is so beautiful from a ferris wheel at night that a kiss becomes part of a script that you would have to make a conscious decision to depart from. Quite what will happen to Jesse and Celine into the future we will only know next season when we see Linklater’s follow up, Before Sunset.

Richard Linklater | USA, Austria, Switzerland | 1995 | 105 minutes | 15