Revisited: Before Sunrise

In which we try to understand how a fundamentally flawed borefest is still one of the great films of all time.

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Sure, I guess it’s weird to start this piece by quoting an old R. Kelly sex jam, but whatever: “My mind’s telling me no, but my body’s telling me yes.” I mean, Kelly’s obviously talking ‘bout his cock there, but if you substitute that for my lonesome heart, then that’s basically the reaction I’ve had to each subsequent viewing of Before Sunrise since I first caught it on TV one late night as a shy 15-year-old loser. The film’s at once a fundamentally flawed borefest and the most affecting cinematic romance since, I don’t know, that Disney movie where the dogs eat spaghetti.

Released back in ’95, Richard Linklater’s epic love story of backpackers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) begins with a scene that echoes their inevitable future: the bickering German couple on the quiet train, who have the yell-y argument that forces Celine to move to a seat directly opposite the young American, could be Jesse and Celine 18 years later – the haggard and resentful couple traipsing across Greek cobblestones in the newly-released Before Midnight.


In Before Midnight — set 18 years after their youthful Viennese meeting, and 9 years after Before Sunset’s emotional reunion in Paris’ cluttered Shakespeare & Company bookshop — their genial flirtations are all but gone. It’s all goofy middle-aged angst, barbed teasing and bitter bickering, fuelled by the sobering complications of their past lives (mainly Jesse’s distant son and divorce issues back in America). At this point, each party feels slighted – Celine for sacrificing her career to look after their twin daughters, Jesse for sacrificing his relationship with his son to move to Paris to be with Celine. They argue over past indiscretions, and the difficult compromise involved in sharing a life haunted by their mythical past. It’s telling that the film’s climactic scene takes place in a staid hotel room, rather than the picturesque cityscapes we’ve been accustomed to; it’s ugly, mean-spirited, and hopelessly unresolved, despite a cutesy closing allusion to Sunrise’s cloying yet honest fake phone call role-play. Jesse and Celine in 2013 are too real, no hope; whoever came to these movies for reality?

Geez, these kids aren’t ever gonna shut the f**k up, are they?

The most pointed criticism generally levelled at Before Sunrise, its incessant chatter, is understandable. The film and its sequels are the ultimate example of that classic movie diss — “It’s so talky!” — or what French artist/critic Antonin Artaud described as “the negation of cinema”, an emphasis on telling rather than showing.


Similarly, Jesse and Celine are mawkishly sentimental and tediously pretentious. If you’re ever lonely and bored and in the mood to get f**ked up, cue up Before Sunrise, line up some bottles and take a shot every time Jesse starts a sentence with “I read a study that found…”. It’s the conversational tic of the perennially boring, a tiresome crutch of weird facts. This is what it must feel like to date Malcolm Gladwell (burn!).

Still, the banter’s the point. Based on its title, some may think the main concern of the film is time and mortality, but it’s really all about the talking. Sunrise was penned by Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan. In a scene in Linklater’s animated philosophy lecture, Waking Life (2001), Krizan launches into a monologue that reveals a familiar preoccupation.

“[Language] came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another… “, she says. “When we communicate with one another, and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion, and that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.”

Krizan’s intent is at the heart of Before Sunrise. Jessie and Celine’s connection lies in their endless blather, those non-stop dialogues where she reveals her dreams about being an old woman or where he says some shit about baseball or reincarnation or his fears about being a dad or whatever (I don’t remember). The harder they talked, the harder they connected, and the more the dwindling hours became inconsequential. And the reason so many of us feel so close to the characters — I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this but on the way to the theatre to see Before Midnight, I actually said to my girlfriend “We’re going to visit our old friends, Jesse and Celine!” — is that we’ve learnt so much about them through their wordy talk-a-thons. I’ve never even talked to my real friends this much.

This is the sappiest thing I’ve ever seen, why am I tearing up like a widowed old lady on her anniversary?

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Before Sunrise was released right in the midst of the decade of cynicism and arching sarcasm; the era of Pavement and Janeane Garofalo and Daria and, well, Lonely Sarcastic Guy. The film’s ridiculously sincere, and charming because of it. Take, for example, the scene in the record store listening booth where Celine and Jesse awkwardly avoid each other’s eyes while Kath Bloom’s ‘Come Here’ hangs encouragingly between them, or the self-censured near contact that’s mirrored in both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. For a movie that’s all natural walking and talking, the forced sentimentality glaringly stands out, daring you to roll your eyes.

Likewise, for such a slight movie that’s all single shots and long takes, its ambitions are immense: a sincere exploration of love and personal connection, of loneliness and death. It’s what makes Sunrise the best, and probably only necessary, film in the series. The stakes were higher in the beginning, with each character in the formative throes of youth, desperately lost and desperately alone. The entire film is an extended ‘sliding doors’, parallel lives moment, where the characters are ridiculously self aware of the stolen time they’re inhabiting (“a world outside reality”, says Celine; “the years shall run like rabbits”, says Jesse, quoting Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’), a brief window where they (and we) can see their ideal future (together) and, consequently, the compromised alternatives (that train, ready to tear them apart), panning out as they’re in the midst of writing it.

After years of mystery, Linklater recently revealed that the series was based on his own experience with Amy Lehrhaupt, a girl he spent one romantic night with in Philadelphia (“from midnight until six in the morning… walking around, flirting…”), who he eventually lost touch with, and who he only recently found out had died in a motorcycle accident not long after their meeting.

While ridiculously tragic, the authenticity notice adds no extra gravitas to the film; with all the feeling onscreen, lovers of the movie probably already suspected some similar back story. It’s a heartbreaking mood piece that speaks to our solipsistic tendencies, like a schmaltzy Paul McCartney tune, and makes you feel the joy and sadness of life all at once, even in spite of yourself.

Before Midnight is screening in cinemas nationally now.