Before Sunrise [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #30]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #30.  Spoilers ahead.  

Before Sunrise

Directed by Richard Linklater

Release Date:  July 30, 1995
My age then:  25 years old

What it is about:  Jesse, an American tourist, randomly encounters Céline, a European traveler, on a train through Europe. The two opt to spend the day and night together in Vienna before Jesse is due to fly home. They form a deep bond during their time, raising serious questions about whether their relationship has a future beyond this one night.

Starring Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Céline.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I pretty much knew what I wrote above in the “What it is about” section, and was aware that Before Sunrise was generally a well-regarded film in which not much plot actually happened. I knew that it had spawned a couple of sequels as well.

Reality: At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like Before Sunrise, and I don’t know if I would have patience for it if it were not for its reputation (or the fact that I’ve set myself this movie-viewing challenge this year). I don’t mind that the plot is quite thin–I’m happy to see a film chart its own course off of familiar genre expectations. But in a story like this all the interest is wrapped up in Céline and Jesse as people. And in the early stages of the film I struggled to be that interested in their relationship.

But as it went on and Jesse and Céline become less guarded in their interaction, I found it more engaging. The movie allows us to get to know these characters as fully fleshed-out people without ever resorting to melodrama or artificial plot twists (which, I suppose, mirrors the process of getting to know people in real life). It accomplishes this, in contradiction to normal scriptwriting logic, primarily through dialogue rather than action.

There is a plot, but it’s entirely based on their decisions about each other–to spend the day together, to give in to their attraction, to protect themselves by deciding they won’t try to prolong the relationship, and to admit that they don’t want to give it up. Along the way, the would-be lovers meet up with variety of other personalities, including a poetic beggar and an eccentric fortune teller. But while these sequences add interest, it never takes away from the main story of Jesse and Céline’s growing relationship. It’s like we’re seeing the subplot of a hundred other films elevated to the main plot, with no new subplot to replace it.

The gives room for some really touching and well constructed sequences, like a sweet bit where Jesse and Céline act out pretend phone calls where they talk about each other with their close friends, or there final farewell at the train station.

A movie like this is obviously leans heavily into the abilities of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as actors to win us over. I never felt like I was watching “great acting”, but that actually adds to the effect–both performers do well bringing the characters to life without feeling unnatural or “theatrical” in any way.

Of course, the performers would have little to do if the script wasn’t as good as it is, but that’s still credit to Hawke and Delpy as they were also uncredited co-scriptwriters (along with Linklater and Kim Krizan).

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? To my slight surprise, the characters and their emotional dilemma won me over, enough to make me want to check out the sequels (Before Sunset, Before Midnight, each released at nine year intervals) someday.

See here for the Master List.

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