In the fall of 1989, having just finished shooting Slacker, Richard Linklater travelled from New York back home to Austin. He stopped in Philadelphia along the way, his stay only lasting a single night, where he met a woman in a toy shop. The two spent the night sauntering around the city, talking about film and art and science until the sun rose, turning his ordinary layover into a life-changing experience. Six years later, a time capsule known as Before Sunrise came into existence.
Julie Delpy plays Céline, a young, wayward student headed home to Paris after seeing her grandmother in Budapest. Ethan Hawke plays Jesse, an American tourist well out of his element, on the last day of a European walkabout initiated by his breakup in Madrid. The two hit it off when Céline switches seats to avoid an argumentative older couple, as a quieter, even older couple looks on. Their trip to the lounge car becomes an inadvertent date when a grumpy waiter thrusts menus in their line of sight, a cutesy happenstance typical of your average rom-com. However, despite Céline’s decision to join Jesse in Vienna, Before Sunrise has no interest in the cute or the quirky.
From the get-go, Céline’s scattered interests all seem to relate to academia in some way, or at least the linear path along which academics traverse. She mentions her parents, who annoy her with constant career advice one-upmanship (Animal shelter? Veterinarian! Actress? Newscaster!) and even reveals her sexual awakening as a teen came about thanks to a swimmer, a sportsman whose specialty is ploughing through a demarcated, linear path. She’s afraid of death, in a very literal sense, a feeling many of us young twenty-somethings in search of purpose can relate to. Jesse on the other hand, speaks of death in more colourful terms. He tells a story of himself as a lost little boy, seeing his great grandmother’s ghost appear to him in a rainbow. He’s frustrated by theology and spirituality, not because the numbers don’t add up, but because he wishes they would. If we’re all reincarnated, older souls in newer bodies, and there are more of us than there ever were before, then that must mean we’re spiritually fractured. A scattered thought, he muses, for a soul as scattered as himself. Céline meanwhile, speaks in broader terms. Media control, political brainwashing, and so forth. She’s not entirely wrong, but she doesn’t yet have the tools to express herself. Meanwhile, Jesse is in a constant state of artistic expression, but what he really has to say feels muddled.
All of these feelings, these attempts to search and find meaning, manifest as both a verbal and physical tête-à-tête. Jesse and Céline delve into each other’s personal lives on a moving bus during an unbroken five-minute take, interrupted only by his nervous attempts to brush her hair away from her face. In the listening booth of a record store, another unbroken take captures their awkward glances at one another, rarely meeting at the same moment but constantly in flux. The plot doesn’t exist as an extension of their characters (at its most basic, it’s just two people walking and talking), but rather as a framework for them to introspect and explore. Céline’s fear of death is somewhat quelled, not by looking forward, but when she returns to a gravesite she visited as a young teen. A garden filled with anonymous bodies, all washed ashore after deaths by accident or by their own hand. One in particular catches her eye, a girl as old as she was back when she first visited. She amends her statement about fearing the inevitable, not by claiming to no longer be afraid, but by realizing death isn’t a burden to be borne alone. Perhaps it’s the film’s use of characters as immature as ourselves to explore themes more mature than most of us are ready to handle, that makes it feel like a journey through existential crisis.
Jesse and Céline disagree, but they never quite argue. Their banter is pleasant, and the actors’ natural, conversational quality makes it an absolute delight to watch, but what keeps it enticing isn’t just its attractive quality. It’s the fact that it always comes from an inquisitive place. Céline’s statements about gender roles come in the form of questions, while she figures out how to balance her modern feminism and her traditional romantic desires. While she seeks adventure, she’s yet to align herself with “the outwardness of life” – of those around her as well as her own outgoing nature, one peppered with constant trepidation. Jesse’s retorts are infused with subtle “I dunno”s as he puts down poets and palm readers, each magicians in their own right, as they bring magic into the world and to Céline in a way that he can’t. Not yet. Not while they both repeat philosophies that aren’t their own. As profound as “We’re all each other’s demons and angels” might sound, one has to wonder if either of them understand it in this film, or even in the next.
At this stage in life, they’re open to conflict if it means learning from one another, and they’re open to adventure even if they aren’t quite ready for it. But is that enough? Ethan Hawke’s Jesse falls ever-so-slightly on the side of immature. He even kisses like an adolescent! His put-on bravado is matched only by Céline’s feisty spark, but Julie Delpy lets her uncertainties slip through whenever Jesse isn’t looking. She comes off as far more certain of all things, but she’s a jack-of-all-trades searching for one skill to master. The only thing she’s truly certain of is rebellion, even if she isn’t sure who she’s rebelling against. It’s her natural state, just like Jesse’s is creativity, but neither is her rebellion creative, nor his creativity rebellious. Not yet. Not until they leave each other’s side and close their eyes, letting the thrill of young romance fade away in order to make room for lessons learned.
As much as lust has a part to play in their encounter, Jesse and Céline are scattered souls who happen to find each other at exactly the right moment. Their first kiss turns in to an embrace, initiated by Céline as they overlook the Vienna skyline. Later, a similar moment follows when they dance in the streets to the sounds of a harpsichord, although it’s Jesse who decides not to let go. Finally, the third instance is mutual and simultaneous, during a goodbye filled with awkward hands and heavy breaths, not to mention the looming sense of finality. A perfect union marred by perfect imperfections, at a moment of parting.
In the end, they forego both the pragmatic exchange of information as well as the poetic idea of ‘one-night-only’ and decide to meet in the middle, by meeting at the same spot in six months time. While the film’s sequels would go on to reveal what happens, whether or not they show is irrelevant to this specific moment. Being pragmatic was Jesse’s idea, while the poetic, romantic notion was put forth by Céline, as if they’d finally dared to take on each other’s perspective for the evening. And while Linklater (along with Delpy and Hawke) would go on to mould the series into a landmark treatise on the passage of time, Before Sunrise feels the melding of past and future, as if time were yet another continuum – singular, constant, viewed twenty-four frames at a time. Be it their journeys by train or their trajectories in life, where these characters are coming from and where they want to go defines their connection. In fact the very reason Céline decides to take a detour with Jesse, is in defiance of time itself:
“Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you're married. Only your marriage doesn't have that same energy that it used to have, y'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'd picked up with one of them, right? Well, I'm one of those guys. That's me, y'know? 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. I'm just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you're really happy.”
“Let me get my bag.”