Before Sunrise (5/5)
Richard Linklater is the master of the conversation film. From his first movie, Slacker, to his most recent creation, Bernie, he has always relied on dialogue to carry his narrative. For some this is a weakness. Film is a visual medium, after all. Linklater’s films may not be as visually striking as other auteurs, but in subduing the visual element, he has refocused his narratives on the intimate, often mundane conversations that take place between his characters. Nowhere in his filmography is this more apparent than Before Sunrise, a romantic film about two couples who meet in Vienna, strike up a half a day’s worth of a relationship, and, of course, madly fall in love.
The two protagonists of Before Sunrise, Celine and Jessie, first meet on a train as it’s pulling into Vienna. Celine has switched seats to get out of earshot of a bickering couple, and the two strike up a conversation that’s unnaturally cut short because Jessie is flying out of Europe tomorrow and Celine is supposed to continue on the train ride. Both characters are twenty-somethings who are away from home—Jessie is American and Celine is French—but they are well suited conversationalists. Before getting off the train, Jessie decides to offer Celine an opportunity to spend more time together. He doesn’t have any extra money, so he was planning on just walking around the city all day and all night until it is time to head to the airport, and he thinks it would be a lot more enjoyable with Celine’s company. After a brief hesitation, Celine agrees, and the rest of the film consists of the two characters casually wondering around Vienna engaging in a series of conversations, some personal, some profound, and others overly extravagant.
From there the plot doesn’t get any more complicated. While each character has his or her own unique disappointments in life, there are no huge reveals, no life defining moment that explains who they are or why they are on this journey. Both are smart, literate, and liberal, but where Jessie is somewhat of a cynic, Celine has a bit of a radical streak. In most romantic films there is some contrived event that prevents the two characters from getting together. There’s nothing so obvious in Before Sunrise, but Jessie and Celine do fight against their own disappointments in the world. Watching their parents and others who have weathered life, they have realized that there are no happy endings. If there’s anything that keeps these two characters apart, it’s the realization that what they have cultivated over the course of a night in Vienna cannot last. Their relationship, as it exists now, has an expiration date. For most of the film, they are guarded, afraid of really falling for each other.
In something of a surprise, Before Sunrise produced two sequels (and Jessie and Celine made cameo appearances in Richard Linklater’s film, Waking Life). After watching Before Sunrise yet again, this makes a lot more sense than you might think. Throughout the film, Jessie and Celine discuss ways in which family and profession, perception and reality whittle down our idealized romantic notions. At one point, Jessie says, “It's just, people have these romantic projections they put on everything that's not based on any kind of reality.” And it is, after all, a bickering married couple that causes Celine to change seats and meet Jessie in the first place. Both characters are aware that they may very well become that couple. In this sense the ending where both Jessie and Celine agree to meet at the same place in six months might have stood as a beautiful cop out. The ambiguity allows us to envision what might happen in their future without fully exploring these implications. To Linklater’s credit, he decided to do the impossible and find out where these characters are nine years down the road. As Celine says at one point, “It’s like some kind of sociological experiment.”