In quarantine, it is important to try new things and avoid stagnation. We now live in a world where time is nothing more than a human construct as we float in an endless void. I have been struggling, as I am sure are many others, adjusting to and finding motivation in our new normal, and so, on the basis of a trusted recommendation, I watched the film “Before Sunrise” to see if it could spark something in me. Director Richard Linklater has a well-earned reputation for constructing thoughtful character studies and coming-of-age tales, and his “Before” Trilogy has garnered significant praise from audiences for decades. If anything, I knew this film would give me a lot to think about.
On the surface, is not the type of movie I expected to connect with. Typically, I gravitate towards films that prioritize structure and favor plot over characters. That is not to say I ignore character development, but usually the most important element of a film, in my eyes, is having a competent story. However, the vision of this film is unobstructed by what you think you want and proudly walks against convention. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this film is that Linklater makes zero attempts to appeal to my preferences and it still manages to forge an unexpectedly emotional connection to me as a viewer.
Moving past my offerings of vague praise, the film itself is simply about two people, Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna and spend one evening getting to know each other. The two are young strangers who take a chance on enjoying the company of someone they likely will never see again after the following morning. While the premise does not seem like a likely situation that I, as an antisocial quasi-human, would ever do, the film sets up their interactions as the believable actions of naïve optimists with nothing to lose from trying.
The product of this could be described best as a moment of life that is so meaningful that one should hope for in their own lives. The film is essentially one deep, elongated conversation between two individuals as they travel about Vienna and discuss their lives, beliefs, past, and hopes for the future. I can understand if it sounds pretentious but it is executed in an unbelievably realistic manner. They even acknowledge the awkwardness that arises from this situation and they embrace it. They are as brave as you wish you were. Perhaps my most fatal flaw as a failed human is that I am notoriously deaf to romantic queues in film, likely because I don’t perceive romance the same way Hollywood portrays it typically. However, the connection between Céline and Jesse feels so tangible and real that even someone as out-of-touch with love as myself could not only pick up on the budding love but also found myself invested in their feelings.
The idea of falling in love with a stranger in a foreign country by spending only one evening with them seems unrealistic, but credit to the writing, nothing feels forced or cheesy. Every interaction they share and topic they discuss prove the visceral qualities of these characters who are portrayed as some of the most realistic individuals I have ever witnessed in film. It is the imperfections that they truly find most attractive in each other, which is a concept stories like to claim they tout without ever fully understanding the message they are preaching. My personal favorite scene is when they go to a dive bar and begin to reveal their recent romantic pasts while playing pinball. They unveil a healthy dose of cynicism that previously might have gone undetected and grounds their relationship from seeming too-good-to-be-true. It shows that life is very much about trial and error, that they take responsibility for their past though it may not be perfect, and that even from the negative experiences of the past, we can grow for the future.
This film could have easily fallen into the traps of being a cliché or cheesy romantic comedy, and while there are moments of lighthearted humor, it would be disingenuous to classify this film as a romantic comedy. Like Jesse suggests in one of his passing train thoughts, this is the art of people living life. In lesser hands, I have my doubts that this film could work, but this cast and crew deliver an exceptional product that I was able to connect with on a deeply emotional level. I eagerly anticipate watching the two sequels, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards for writing, and completing this trilogy of films.
I give “Before Sunrise” a 9.3 out of 10
Starring: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 1 Hour and 41 Minutes