A guy (Ethan Hawke) and a girl (Julie Delpy), both in their early twenties, meet on a train bound for Paris in summer 1994. It doesn’t take them very long at all to discover that they have a remarkable chemistry together, and as such they begin a conversation on that train that will last the rest of the movie, and for two more movies following that. A huge torrent of dialogue flows between them as they discuss everything from their childhoods, past relationships, religion, romance, and any and everything else under the sun. It is indeed a grand piece of cinematic conversation. They are both products of Generation X, but they lack the disconnected, bored with it all sentiments you’d typically expect from people of that era.
When the train arrives for a stop at Vienna, the guy, Jesse, has to depart because this is where his airplane is to depart to take him back to America the following morning. His plan, being too poor to afford a hotel is to amble around the fine old city for the night before boarding the plane the following day. The girl, Celine, a student from Paris, finds herself being asked by Jesse if she would like to accompany him for this walk and continue their conversation for a few more hours. In this day and age, or any day and age really, it’s probably never a good idea to agree to wander around a strange city with a guy you just met on public transit, but for the sake of this wonderful movie, we’re all better off for her indiscretion.
Jesse and Celine spend the rest of the movie walking various back alleys, street corners, and assorted secluded areas of Vienna, encountering many gritty, eccentric, but altogether lovingly believable people along the way such as improvisational street actors, belly dancers, palm readers, and a pan handling poet who exchanges his own finely personalized prose for pocket change by the Danube. They wander through an old cemetery filled with people, mostly young, who committed suicide by jumping into a river, whose bodies later washed ashore, where Celine had been years before as a child, and into a grand old cathedral, where Jesse and Celine, although neither of them religious themselves, find themselves still in a state of awed reverence to the thousands of people who have come to this spot in the years before them seeking peace and solace.
They share their first kiss on the same Ferris Wheel where Orson Welles delivered his famous “Cuckoo Clock” monologue in ‘The Third Man’. Speaking of which, in my review of ‘The Third Man’ posted earlier this year I wrote that Vienna was very much a central character in that movie, and it was interesting here to see the city, a half century removed from the dark days of rubble strewn streets and shell shocked people, now blossoming with art, life, and music, and to see the children (and grandchildren) of those aforementioned people filled with passion and energy instead of fear and dread. The tragic, romantic aura of the locations and the city perfectly compliments the mood of the movie.
The whole movie takes place in the span of one night, and has a documentary feel to the way that it is shot, but the story of these two characters is pure cinema at its finest. So many of Richard Linklater’s films take place within span of just one day or one night, such as SubUrbia, Dazed and Confused, (two films I definitely need to be re-watching and reviewing here soon) and the two sequels to this film, ‘Before Sunset’ and ‘Before Midnight’ (which I will be reviewing soon as well). The character of Jesse, who I assume is based on a young Linklater himself, is also fascinated by the idea of telling stories within various experimental confines of time, as he brings up in different ideas on the train at the beginning of this movie while discussing a kind of reality television show way before the idea of such a thing was even beginning to be popular, and in similar scenes in both the following films, where he later becomes a somewhat famous author talking about prospective books with similar quirky ideas.
The short time span covered in these movies both forces the storytelling to be tight, and allows it to breath in places where in other movies it would be more constricted, and trying to move onto the next piece of business. Just like Jesse and Celine know they might have only one night to share their newfound love for one another, we as an audience are also only given this one glimpse into a single solitary night of their lives. But what a grand glimpse it is. Every scene breathes with life and is flooded with passionate urgency, but it is also filled to the brim with intelligence as well. Even the quiet moments have a powerful resonance to be discovered in them. This is certainly a movie made to be watched more than once. There are so many of those beautiful quiet moments to be appreciated in this movie such as a wonderful scene that takes place at a local record store where the two put on a piece of music and then take turns pretending not to notice how attracted they are to each other.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy give the performances of a lifetime here, in many, many long extended takes of sweeping conversations that seem less like movie dialogue than any other piece of dialogue I have heard in any other movie I have ever seen. It really is just like listening to two people talking in real life, but yet it still manages to be more than that. The conversations are autobiographical but also very lyrical. It is truly an opera of oratory, which, in an age dominated with movies where cardboard characters quickly churn out pre-processed clichés and disperse with snippets of the most vapid dialogue imaginable, is like finding a cool glass of fresh water in an arid desert. When I first saw this movie (about five years ago…) I was roughly the same age as the two main characters and desperately yearned to be having these exact conversations myself.
I found that I very much identify with the character of Jesse here, at the dawn of his life, filled with confused emotions, repressed urges, and endless ambition. He finds in Celine the perfect philosophical counter balance for him. I am also glad that when I first saw this film, I did not know that there was already a sequel to it out there. It’s not that the later movies are bad per se, quite the opposite in fact, as they are both remarkable achievements in their own right. However, there was something satisfying about not knowing what happens to these characters at the end of this movie when they finally separate from each other. Of course you hope they find their way back to one another eventually, but just like real life, it’s the mystery and the wonder that gives everything that extra ounce of poignancy.
So if your girlfriend is in the mood for a romantic flick sometime next weekend and you feel yourself having that familiar cringe, I suggest that you first of all, do not panic, and then perhaps suggest this movie to her. For here is an intelligent, well crafted film that both of you can easily enjoy wrapped up in the trappings of what could easily be mistaken for a chick flick, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a nice picture of a point in our history just at the dawn of the internet age, and just before everyone you met had a cell phone in their pocket. Thankfully there are no such gadgets in the hands of these characters to distract them from the wondrous surroundings and even more amazing chemistry going on between them. This is one of my all time favorite movies, and one that I will revisit hopefully many times in the future.
Before Sunrise gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.