Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 19 June 2012
Source Warner bros. DVD
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.’
There is a certain sense of relief that comes with revisiting a beloved film and discovering that it’s just as good as you remembered. That perhaps holds particularly true of films about youthful romance, which somehow seem more likely to lose their luster as time passes. (Or at least, as their audience grows up.) So it is with joy and relief that I tell you that director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise remains an enchanting film some seventeen years after its initial release. In fact, in some ways the intervening years have only increased the poignancy of a film so preoccupied with the transience of life.
Before Sunrise tells the story of Jesse and Celine, an American guy and a French girl, both in their twenties, who meet on a train and agree to spend the night exploring Vienna together before Jesse flies back to the United States. That’s almost it in terms of action – most of the scenes simply involve Jesse and Celine talking – but it’s more than enough. And right from the beginning, the question of time hovers over the couple. They only have one night, of course, but Jesse also persuades Celine to come with him by invoking her possible future:
Jump ahead. Ten, twenty years, okay? And you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, you know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life, and what might have happened if you picked up with one of them. Right? Well I’m one of those guys. That’s me. So think of this as time travel from then to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband, to find out that you’re not missing out on anything.
In this scene and elsewhere, the film both celebrates the youth and spontaneity of its characters, and acknowledges that youth, and beauty, and love, have a heartbreaking tendency to fade. Yet the film deals with this reality not with melodrama but rather with a lovely wistfulness that lingers not unpleasantly after it’s over.
The pair speak to each other in the unguarded and uncommonly candid way that travelers sometimes fall into with strangers who they don’t expect to meet again, covering everything from (terrible) ideas for TV shows to first crushes. They cycle back to the same big topics again and again: ambition, aging, love, loss, magic, and death. The tone is thoughtful and even dreamy, but never ponderous; the film moves with a gentle free-associative flow that feels natural.
Indeed, Linklater displays a rare knack for staging spontaneous, romantic moments that actually feel spontaneous and romantic. Jesse and Celine kiss for the first time at the top of a glittering Ferris wheel, and it doesn’t feel hokey, perhaps because of the tentative way that they move toward each other, or the lack of any dramatic swell of music on the soundtrack. There are other moments of similar charm and authenticity, including a bit where the young paramours dance to harpsichord music that they overhear through a window, and an early scene where the pair stand in a listening booth at a record store, each attempting to steal glimpses of the other while shyly avoiding direct eye contact.
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are so well cast as Jesse and Celine that it’s difficult to imagine other actors in their roles. Celine, an old soul who imagines her life as the collective memories of an elderly woman on her deathbed, is a perfect part for an actress of Delpy’s powerful screen presence and keen intelligence; while cynical, philosophical Jesse is an archetypal role for the slouchily charismatic Hawke. Of course, it’s their chemistry that sells us on the story: whether sharing their hopes and fears or just a charged silence, they make us believe in their connection.
The couple makes a grandly romantic promise in the end, and we know that they might not keep it, and that at any rate; they probably won’t have many other nights as headily romantic as the one that we witness here. They will get older. They will likely be disappointed, if not with one another, then with themselves. But rather than cast a pall over the proceedings, the sense that we’ve caught up with these characters during one fleeting, perfect interlude in their inevitably imperfect lives only heightens the film’s sense of urgency, and indeed, its fragile beauty.