Before Sunrise


When love can come as a complete surprise.

Before Sunrise poster
This may be the most romantic movie I've ever seen. It's not a romantic comedy; Meg Ryan would have no place in this film. It's about how taking a chance on someone, setting yourself up for embarrassment, and throwing caution to the wind can lead to a fulfilling interaction, regardless of how brief that interaction may be.

Jessie and Celine are riding a train through Europe, but they are sitting in different parts of the train and have never met. An argument between a middle-aged couple causes Celine to leave her seat and take the one across the aisle from Jessie. They share an uncomfortable smile when the fighting couple rushes past the two of them. This leads to a few words, which leads to a trip to the dining car and one of those good conversations that can appear from nowhere when two people are open and ready to have such a conversation with a stranger, even if both of these strangers are twenty something and attractive.

He is catching a plane from Vienna back to the USA, she is going back to school in Paris. At his stop, he grabs his bag and is about to get off when he makes one of those moves that people think about their entire lives.

He suggests to Celine that she too get off the train, they explore Vienna together that night (he has no money for accommodations), and she get back on the train in the morning and he flies home. This is not an invitation to hook up or a way to get invited to Paris. He simply feels that his last night in Europe would be better with her in it. Their conversation was natural and insightful and it would be a shame to end it just because they have different destinations. She debates her answer in her mind. She has safety issues to think about, but she too comes to the realization that she doesn't want the conversation to end either and she bravely gets off the train with him.

As the train pulls away they sort of nervously laugh at what they've done. But that nervousness goes away as they explore Vienna on one of those afternoons that makes you want to move there.

He must catch a flight and she must get on the train in the morning. They have 14 hours together in Vienna. That is the entirety of the plot.

They get into arguments, they kiss, they listen to music and get coffee and acquire a bottle of wine and get their fortune read and have a poem written on their behalf. They simply exist in Vienna as a couple (first friends, then romantically) even though when they woke up that morning they hadn't met.

Hawke plays his part as a typical American. He doesn't know any other languages which is something that is alluded to on occasion. He doesn't let fantasy enter his life. He's cynical because of past relationships. Delpy is flighty and tough-acting, but just as vulnerable as any other 23-year-old who doesn't know where she's going. She swears and gets angry. She is exactly what we think a young French woman is like (or maybe what we hope one is like).

Both actors are onscreen the entire time. It's basically a moving two-person play set in a gorgeous city. The actors inhabit their roles. You will believe that we are watching a documentary of two people meeting in a third country. The flow is so natural that its hard to believe that they didn't make it up as they went along.

There are certain scenes that I will never forget. Linklater has the two characters sitting at the back of a trolley and the camera stays on them for four minutes. No cutting, just the train moving slowly around a huge park. Because the take is so long, the conversation has to be natural and mistakes and pauses and stuttering are all part of such a long scene. In this scene, which happens early in their evening, Hawke reaches his hand up to adjust Delpy's hair, but she tucks it behind her ear before he can touch it, and he quickly puts his hand back on the seat before she even sees it. I've watched this move several times wondering if it was so Hawke could make eye contact or so her face would be lighted better, but those reasons don't explain it. It didn't seem to be a 'craft of acting' type of move. It was one of the most natural things I've ever seen in a romance. He isn't yet close enough to have earned the right to touch her hair, yet he feels like he 'has to' in some way. Just when he's about to, she takes care of it, and he smiles a private smile full of nervousness and goes back to listening to what she's saying. That this move takes place in the middle of a long scene makes it all the more special. Like it's the most natural thing in the world. I doubt it was choreographed, but maybe I just fell for it because I wanted to.

Later, in another scene etched into my retinas, the characters go to a record store and she pulls out a record she had heard of and they go into one of those old-fashioned booths to listen to it. The booth is small and they sort of push themselves in and listen to the music. There is no talking and they both look at each other while pretending to concentrate on the music. When their eyes meet, they both look away and then timidly move back to each other's face or neck or arm. Another long scene, this one with no dialogue.

A third fantastic scene takes place in a restaurant when they each pretend to be the other person's best friend receiving a telephone call about what's transpired. She calls her friend first and Hawke expresses outrage that she'd get off the train for a stranger. She says she was attracted to him right away and she feels safe with him and he 'kisses like an adolescent' and at the end she says (be still my beating heart) 'I like to feel his eyes on me when I'm not looking at him'. Then its his turn to pretend call his friend. This scene makes their relationship move more quickly because they can tell the other person what they're thinking under the guise of telling a third person. They don't have time to mess around with each other's minds. If the attraction that they feel isn't mutual, it's not like the next day things will change. They won't even see each other the next day. It's a way to be sure that they're still on the same page romantically and the scene works perfectly.

There are others great tidbits--including a natural conversation about past lovers over a pinball machine, a guy playing a harpsichord, a ferris wheel ride, when they say 'goodbye' early in the evening to avoid it later--I mean, so many. Most of these scenes are edited in long, single takes, that can't help but feel realistic. There are no quick cuts in real life.

I can't stress enough how everyone should see this. There is no big sex scene. At the end of the film, we're not sure what exactly happened between them and we don't know if they'll ever see each other again. There are arguments for every position. But for those few hours in Vienna, the couple do exactly what we all wish we had the courage to do.

This film gets better the older I get. It is so much smarter than the other boy-meets-girl films that we've been forced to sit through in the past ten years.

I can't wait to see it again.

Jessie.....Ethan Hawke [Dead Poets Society; Dad; White Fang; Waterland; Alive; Reality Bites; Quiz Show; Gattaca; Great Expectations; The Newton Boys; Waking Life]
Celine.....Julie Delpy [E.R.; Europa Europa; Homo Faber; MichaelVox's Top Ten Trois Couleurs: Blue, White, and Red; Killing Zoe; The Passion of Ayn Rand; Waking Life]
Cinematography by Lee Daniel [Slacker; Dazed And Confused]
Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan [Slacker; Dazed And Confused; Waking Life]
Directed by Richard Linklater [Slacker; Dazed and Confused; Clerks; Good Will Hunting; The Newton Boys; Waking Life]

Digital Satellite
105 minutes
Austria Switzerland USA

This Was Written On January 11, 2002

A young American meets a French woman on a train and persuades her to spend the night talking and walking around Vienna.

7.5 Roger Ebert
10 San Francisco Chronicle
10 James Berardinelli

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