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Before Sunrise (1995)

by on 2011/02/18

Before Sunrise isn’t quite my favourite film of all time but — as I’ve suggested in the past — its sequel definitely is.  I’m not implying the latter is “better” than the former, only that I love and respect it even more.

In fact I appreciate the original has a more provocative, interpretive, and interesting resolution . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Supposedly based on an actual incident, director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset tells of the meeting of an American boy Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl Celine (Julie Delpy).  Their story is not one of plot mechanics or action.  It’s more a deliberate travelogue, infused with their conversation.

Sharing a Eurail train car, two strangers are driven into close quarters by an older couple’s argument.  They strike up a conversation, adjourn to the dining car, and become fast friends.  On a whim, they leave the train together at the next stop, in Vienna.  In about twelve hours’ time, Jesse is scheduled to return to the States.

Given one night together, they navigate streets, back alleys, and fields, visiting fairgrounds, a church, and a cemetery.  They meet actors, a bartender, a palm reader, and a poet.  They dance, trade quips, and play awkward variations of truth or dare, trading histories, current situations, and hopes and fears for the future.  They build images of themselves, challenge each other, and react to the sights and sounds of a city equally foreign to both.

Their conversations cover at least as much ground as they do, running the gamut from playful to profound.  They discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, are reminded of their own, and gradually gather enough evidence to justify the initial spark of romance.

Even where they mismatch, they adapt to admit the possibility of love:  foibles become endearing; disagreements are couched in humour; impasses are avoided by abandoning debate.  The resulting awkwardness builds a palpable, expectant tension between them.

Jesse and Celine’s chemistry must be credited to the charms and talents of Hawke and Delpy.  They’re as winning in delivering this third-party dialogue as they are with their own in the sequel.  Watch the unscripted touches they add:  Celine’s visible consideration of Jesse’s ideas (whether she agrees with them or not); Jesse’s attempts to touch a wayward lock of Celine’s hair; both of them nearing The End, struggling to convince themselves their one night was enough.

I’ve probably seen this film somewhere near a dozen times.  I discovered Before Sunrise in its initial run, but knew few who shared my awareness, let alone affection for it.  I would have assumed it has few remaining secrets, and yet I noticed a reaction I hadn’t had before.  I found I was giggling.  A lot.

Not laughing at, but not exactly laughing with either.  I felt as if I were reacting despite myself.  I realized with some surprise that, despite knowing the eventual fate of these characters, I was nonetheless caught up in their giddy nervous energy.  My laughter was cathartic.

Anything evoking such spontaneous surprise — especially after a dozen viewings, over a decade and a half — is worth my unqualified endorsement.  Before Sunrise deserves to be sought out, seen, and celebrated . . . and not just because of a sequel it doesn’t know it’s setting up.

* * * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / R (America) for adult situations and language

101 minutes

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