Directed by Richard Linklater
Before Sunrise is the first of three movies forming the Before trilogy. Each film follows Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) but just for a small amount of time. In this case, the Before Sunrise story takes place over a handful of hours, yet in that timespan we learn so much about Jesse and Celine, more than we do about most characters in a typical film.
Part of this is because of the freedom these two characters feel to say anything and talk about everything. At one point in the film, while the two are philosophizing about life, Jesse remarks how he has never done anything in life without himself. He’s never watched a movie at which he wasn’t in the audience. The point he’s getting at is that we have a hard time experiencing something outside of ourselves because we filter our experience through a prism defined by our attitude, personality, perspective, memory, etc.
But the events of Before Sunrise exist in a vacuum, in a sense, and it’s the closest thing I imagine Jesse and Celine get to experiencing something outside of themselves. They take advantage of the freedom of being in a new location with a new person and possibly performing a different side of themselves. You can sense when Jesse might be puffing out his chest a little too much or when Celine delights in challenging a particular theory of his. Because they aren’t constrained by the limits we impose on our own conversations (for a multitude of reasons), their conversations are delightfully deep, occasionally pretentious, funny and enlightening.
This film seems to be all about what our interactions could be but not what they are. Listening to Richard Linklater interviews (a lot in the past few days), it’s been interesting to hear his insights and perspectives on his own work. He talks about how the dialogue in a film like Slacker is rather uncommunicative because people often have a hard time communicating. In that film, there are many scenes in which one character effectively has their own monologue while another is completely silent, taking it in without a sense of judgement. Because of that, the audience is left to form their own opinions on the person speaking, listening less to what they’re saying and more to how they’re saying it.
When I first saw Before Sunrise, a few years ago I think, I saw it as a love story. It didn’t feel all that different from other love stories, and I assumed I was meant to like both Jesse and Celine. It felt like I should aspire to be like them. They are well-spoken, thoughtful, courageous (as Jesse took a risk asking her to get off the train with him), and just the fact that they’re traveling abroad alone implies a certain confidence and independence about their characters.
But watching it this time, I didn’t like the characters as much, but I felt like I understood them more than I did previously. This time I could see the ways in which they are just trying to figure things out. Celine even calls Jesse out at one point, observing that his supposedly solid theory on something about life was really just a work in progress, only he didn’t yet know it. And having seen the sequels (well, I’ve only yet read the script for Before Midnight), it’s hard not to notice several sort of easter eggs, or set ups that touch on where these characters’ lives will go. They discuss the ways in which life might have a way of disappointing you, and in the sequels, among other things, they discuss that same disappointment.
Despite this knowledge they have of the future and the restrictions a normal adult life brings, Jesse and Celine are pretty optimistic people. Perhaps it’s just the moment that brings it out of them, and really that’s probably the explanation. You can feel the rush that they each feel from having someone’s hand to hold in a foreign city. Jesse and Celine attack and engage with Vienna as if it’s their own backyard because they’re confident because… they’re in love. They interact with musicians, homeless poets, a gypsy, a kind and romantic bartender, etc.
They feel alive, in other words, and I don’t think I realized the first time I saw this film, how this really is a moment that captures part of these characters, not their whole selves. This film celebrates the moment, to put it plainly, and in particular it embraces the way the moment can elevate you and even, at times, hammer you over the head.
All of Richard Linklater’s films, or most of them at least, deal with some aspect of time. That might me something as small as a single expression or as large as the gap in time between this film and Before Sunset. So much of this film is a spoken conversation between Jesse and Celine, but one of the best moments is silent, as they listen together to a song in a small booth within a record store.
The whole film might as well boil down to this one moment, as they smile nervously at each other, exchanging fleeting glances yet never really looking one another in the eye. This film, I suppose is the moment when we finally make eye contact, and the rest of our lives might be the time we spend avoiding eye contact.
I guess I should stop theorizing and just say that I really love this movie. It’s hard not to. Even when Jesse’s aspirational intellectualism rubbed me the wrong way, I still looked at his character with affection. It’s fun watching two people fall in love but also just embrace part of life. Isn’t that what we’re all looking to do, especially when we’re young?
There were so many moments that felt very open and honest, and because these perspectives were filtered through the characters and what they chose to say, there’s still the possibility that they weren’t being quite so honest. Maybe they didn’t understand what they were feeling, or maybe they were avoiding telling the truth. But regardless, these moments felt honest because they were attempts to find the truth. I don’t even know what “truth” means anymore, but these conversations all felt like attempts at life.
In one scene, Celine talks about the importance of her own independence before then confessing that it means so much to her to love and to be loved. This struck me in some way because it feels right. So much of what we do, I think, is project images of herself to the world, whether literally ‘images’ on social media or just in public through what we where, how we talk and what we choose to talk about.
When you ask someone what tv shows they watch, their answer undoubtedly tells you something about who they are, even if what you think is wrong (again, filtered through your own perspective). It seems we are constantly attempting to figure everything out, whether that’s people or the world, and maybe it’s just pessimism (it probably is), but it feels like we’re getting further and further away from figuring it out. This might all be bullshit, and maybe it’s just because the conversation in Before Sunrise feels so idyllic, but… when’s the last time you had a conversation like the one in this movie?
I’m left feeling happy and hopeful when the film ends, but I want to have conversations like these, I wish they were okay and appropriate to have in everyday life. But I can’t get coffee and ask the barista, in between giving her my name and paying for the espresso, what her relationship with death is. Or if she’s ever been in love or if she’s optimistic about her place in the world and the world itself. Or if she likes Stranger Things. Okay, I can ask that last one, but everyone likes Stranger Things.
I just like this film, and I like what Richard Linklater considers territory worth exploring. And yet, despite the importance of the moment, as this film seems to suggest, there’s also a feeling that these are still just… moments, and maybe they’re not as important as we think. Like the scene with the homeless poet. It’s a moment’s moment for Jesse and Celine, but that’s only because of where they’re at right then and there. They’re falling in love, and they’re spending a dream night together. But for that poet, maybe it’s an utterly forgettable moment. Again, it’s all about perspective.
The film ends with a series of static shots of the locations we’ve seen throughout the film. Now, though, these locations are almost unbearably lonely because of what we feel we’ve experienced alongside Jesse and Celine and knowing that it’s all over. Even if they see each other again, they will never have those moments back. That’s how it works.
I’m sure we all know that feeling of seeing a location in person that you’ve seen a thousand times in your head from a memory you’ve let yourself play over and over and over again. And when you go back to that spot, it feels different simply because it’s the present. Oftentimes this feeling is soaked with melancholia, at least for me, because seeing that location again reminds me how long it’s been since that memory took place. And then you realized how distorted that memory has become.
And yet, so many of these memories and moments are sandwiched between other memories and moments that don’t matter to me and thus, to anyone. Okay, I’m going to get really weird now, but stay with me. So think about that moment in your life where something amazing happened. It can be anything. Does this moment belong to anyone else other than you? Maybe you shared it with someone, but you can’t be sure that they put the same importance on this moment that you do. If it’s a spouse or a loved one, maybe they have affection for this moment too, but perhaps they put much more significance on a separate moment which you remember but don’t put the same weight on. Okay, I’m losing you. But think about your moment, the one you’ve put all your chips on. Was there someone walking by in the background? You can’t even remember, but maybe this was at a park, so there was probably was. Does this moment belong to them? They have their own movie going on inside their head, and unless they too had perhaps a life changing moment right then and there, this moment is not theirs. It’s yours. Or what about the moment right before this and right after. That might not even be your moment. Just the one in the middle. So that moment before and after, the ones that aren’t as important to you, what do those moments mean? They’re almost nothing because they don’t have the same weight, but again they might mean something to someone else in a completely different part of the world. But you can’t know that. So your moments, I guess I’m saying, only belong to you. Sometimes maybe other people too, and fuck that’s what real love is, when you experience this sudden, impactful moment, and you know that they are experiencing it too. Because I guess we aren’t always experiencing our moments. Hell, when I was watching Jason Bourne last night and zoning in and out, it was a moment sure, but I wasn’t really experiencing it. Am I experiencing this one? I don’t know. But when you know you share it with someone, that’s obviously special. And so I return to the idea that even when Jesse and Celine speak of something momentous or meaningful in their life, you still can’t be sure that they see it the way they claim to, because you can never know what’s going on in their head. But their attempts to describe it is the moment, or something, Jesus I’m losing even myself right now. Before Sunrise is probably a moment that both of these characters experience. I mean, that’s the point, that they share this thing and that they both fucking know it. It’s awesome. I went to a small coffee place yesterday to get a macchiato and I barely remember it.
Before Sunrise celebrates Jesse and Celine, but it doesn’t bow down to their message and the way they see the world. The film recognizes the impermanence of not just the moment but the way the characters approach the moment. I wish every movie made me think the same way this one does. Maybe I’ll watch Synecdoche, New York next and find out.