Double Bill: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

Richard Linklater’s film BEFORE SUNRISE about two strangers that share a romantic evening together in Vienna and its follow up BEFORE SUNSET with their reunion in Paris nine years later, are two wonderful films that explore whether “true” love really exists and what happens when idealism clashes with the harsh realities of growing up.

Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Released by Warner Brothers Pictures

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) 101 min.
BEFORE SUNSET (2004) 80 min.

I first saw Before Sunrise at four in the morning and at the time it couldn’t have been more relevant. I couldn’t sleep because the next day I was leaving to live in Europe for a year and just like the two characters in the film Jessie and Celine, was full that romantic idealism that only happens when you’re young and embarking on an great adventure. Once in Europe I made sure that I made a stop in Vienna just like these characters did. While sadly it rained the whole time and I was with my platonic best friend Luke instead of a dashing Ethan Hawke, I had a great time and know I never would have thought of going if it hadn’t been for this film.

Before Sunrise is an incredibly simple film. There is no elaborate plot, sweeping soundtrack or fancy camera movement. What we get instead are two strangers Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train in Europe and have an instant connection. While they know they must go their separate ways by the next morning, the pair decides to spend the night in Vienna getting to know each other.

While this may have been an incredibly boring premise with different actors, Hawke and Delpy shine as two people who embrace their immediate attraction. Hawke has played the character of the sensitive pseudo-intellectual countless other times (Reality Bites, Great Expectations, Gattaca) but as Jessie Wallace he nails the role perfectly. While Delpy at first comes across as just a pretty face, she wins you over with her portrayal of an idealist but insecure young woman searching for purpose.

As Jessie and Celine walk around Vienna no subject is off limits. By the end of the night they’ve shared an intimacy that most couples never experience in years- let alone hours. As they say their goodbyes the two make the rather unrealistic decision to meet again in Vienna in six months, to see if they might have a future together. Then Celine goes back to Paris, Jessie to the United States, and that’s it. It’s left up to the audience to decide whether the lovers actually ever fulfill their promise to each other. That is until the sequel came out in 2004, as weird coincidence would have it just as I returned from my year abroad.

Before Sunset does something that few other movies of its kind have; made me love the sequel even more then the original. One of the main ways it achieves this is by making the visual palette of the film so gorgeous; while Vienna was shot beautifully in Sunrise, Linklater turns Paris into an airy dream world where Jessie and Celine are the only people that matter. But more importantly you can see that ten years has made both Hawke and Delpy stronger performers; this time Delpy won me over instantly as an older and much more cynical Celine.

The sequel opens in a Parisian bookstore where a now thirty something Jessie is answering questions at a press conference for the book he wrote about his night with Celine. The reporters stand in for the audience as they ask Jessie the question we all want to know; did the two meet six months later and continue their affair? Jessie refuses to give the reporters a straight answer and when he becomes a babbling nervous wreck when he sees Celine in the audience, the state of their relationship becomes even more confusing. After the press conference Jessie and Celine exchange an awkward kiss hello and decide to go for a quick coffee together before Jessie has to catch his flight back to New York.

As they walk to the coffee shop we finally understand what happened all those years ago; one of them showed up, and the other didn’t. While it’s spelt out all across their faces, both Jesse and Celine don’t want to admit that not meeting again has had irrevocable affects on both of their lives.   But as much as they try to chat about broader subjects like politics and the environment, the conversation inevitably starts to shift towards the impact of their night together. Jessie admits that he wrote his book to try and find Celine; Celine admits that reading Jessie’s book has made her realize that he had such an impact on her she hasn’t had a meaningful relationship since.

Admitting they’re still attracted to each other is all well and good but being older Jessie and Celine know that their lives are much more complicated then in their early twenties; Jessie for one is now married. “Maybe we’re only good at brief encounters in European cities-in warm climate” Celine sighs sadly. Jessie quickly dismisses the idea but Celine brings up a good point. While Jessie and Celine may see each other as “the one”- how could a real relationship between them possibly work?   As Jessie tells the reporters at the beginning of the film; “Well, it’s a true test if you’re a romantic or a cynic”.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset really work best when you have the time to devote watching them back-to-back. This way you can really appreciate Jessie and Celine’s evolution from love struck innocent kids into worldly, mature adults. They aren’t the kind of movies you’ll want to watch all the time but the pair have sat on my DVD shelf for a long time now, like old friends that maybe about once a year I pull out and enjoy all over again.

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