“So, think of this as time travel from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on,” says Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, young and exuberant in the opening of Richard Linklater’s seminal romantic masterpiece, Before Sunrise. He is giving his all into persuading Julie Delpy’s Céline, a French woman he just met on the train, to come with him to spend a night exploring Vienna before he flies home to America. He manages to convince her by filling her head with an imaginary scenario of a future unhappy marriage. He explains how she’ll start thinking of the men from her life that she never took a chance on and swears that he’s one of them. “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.” Céline is ultimately convinced and joins Jesse for the rest of the night. Thus begins one of the greatest and long lasting love stories in the movies, cementing a desire to travel and take a chance with a complete stranger in the hearts of several young cinephiles. Their saga lasts over the course of three films that span three decades (with the possibility of even more to come) but would have never started had Jesse not taken a risk. At this moment, both of the young potential lovers’ lives come to a stop and are changed forever.
Before their meeting on the train, Jesse and Céline lived busy lives. Céline is returning to Paris after visiting her grandmother while Jesse had been traveling on his own after the falling out of a long distance relationship. Both on their journey home, Céline moves seats due to a bickering German couple and sits directly across from Jesse. The two exchange pleasantries and eventually get a conversation going until they hit Jesse’s stop. This causes his impromptu proposal and subsequently brings their lives to a halt.
Time seems to slow down as they begin their detour into the streets of Vienna, gradually making conversation about love and death and getting to know each other better. The sky grows darker and the streets get less busy, but they hardly seem to notice. They are entranced, finding something special in the other that they have never found in anyone else before. It’s that feeling when every part of the world seems to disappear when you’re with a certain person. You notice nothing that’s going on around you. Nothing that’s happened in the past matters anymore and nothing in your future is of any worry. Céline’s priority is no longer about returning home. Jesse isn’t too concerned about catching his plane (is he ever?). The only thing that matters is the person that’s in front of them, the one they’re falling in love with.
Linklater is known for making the most simple of conversations enticing and in doing so crafts a film that seems to escape time’s constraints itself. Before Sunrise is barely over an hour and a half yet it flies by. He captures that feeling of being lost in conversation with someone you care about in a way in which not many filmmakers are capable. Of course, this has just as much to do with Hawke and Delpy. They were allowed to rewrite their own dialogue, adding a personal connection to their characters that would prove useful come the sequels. It resulted in the trademark naturalistic dialogue that doesn’t quite resemble any other film that comes to mind.
What is most impressive about Jesse and Céline’s time-altering night together is how much they learn about themselves. Some people can go years without becoming close and learning intimate details about each other whereas these two manage to do so in a single night. They live an entire life together in twelve hours, learning firsthand how their minds and bodies work. Perhaps people are willing to be more vulnerable with others when there’s a chance they may not ever see them again. Perhaps it’s just easier to be vulnerable with someone when you know without question that they are meant for you. Whatever the reason, it only brings the two closer together and makes their parting that much harder to watch.
At the end of the film, as the sun begins to rise, Jesse walks Céline back to the train station. Their time together is over and the time around them unfreezes – the world continues on. They promise to meet each other at that exact spot in six months time before Céline departs. They go their separate ways, resulting in an ending that can be construed as hopeful or bittersweet – depending on your own view on love. Before Sunrise is a highly romanticized and idealistic view on a budding relationship which is precisely the point. It feels exactly how a chance meeting would and it manages to suck the viewer into that feeling with ease. With two additional films that follow it, the mystery as to whether they will actually see each other again is lost. But I often wonder what those who were fortunate enough to see Before Sunrise on its release felt about it. They, too, were caught up in this deeply moving romance for a little under two hours and now suddenly they were walking out of the theater back into their own world – time, once stopped, had started up again.