“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something”
Before Celine (Julie Delpy) agrees to go on a night of adventure in Vienna with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), she is told that her decision is akin to time travel. Serving as a pick-up line and audacious concept, Jesse’s cheesy attempt to get her off the train is the jumping off point for what Before Sunrise ultimately becomes before the two lovers part ways. Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic opens with Jesse positing that seizing the moment helps both strangers avoid future and past regret. Where the film goes from there is what Celine so eloquently captures in the above quote: “…the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.” Its empathetic viewpoint is what structures the entirety of Before Sunrise, and eventually goes on to shape each subsequent installment in the series.
Unsurprising is that Linklater took the concept of Before Sunrise from his own personal experience, which helps shape an assured film with a very minimalist plot. Jesse and Celine merely wander the streets of Vienna until the next day, when Celine leaves and Jesse prepares to head back to America. Co-written by Kim Krizan, it’s the long-winded conversations and exchange of ideas that defines their relationship for audiences. The way Jesse can move from talking about his friend taunting a homeless man with $100 to Celine contemplating feminism as a means for men to have more sex, switching just as quickly to ruminations on death, old age, and the power of love — that’s what gives the film its potency. The openness that the two share isn’t merely a ticking clock pressuring them to expose themselves to each other. They’re opening up out of comfort, and building upon a relationship that has quickly defined itself by finding meaning in the moments shared.
It also helps that the two leads, Hawke and Delpy, come together to convey a chemistry so poetic and charming that all you want is to spend more time with them; one night is quite simply not enough. Hawke’s grungy cynicism barely masks a romantic at heart, evident in the way he can’t stop watching Celine’s every movement, and how he reaches out to her only to pull back in hesitation. The bond between them is barely matured early on in Before Sunrise, allowing Hawke to play Jesse like he’s handling a delicate balance between smooth-talking gentleman and an open-book of philosophical ideas about a decaying world that’s lost the plot. What becomes evidently clear is how open Celine is from the very beginning, and how much that open form of communication is what she not only wants, but demands in a relationship.
Meanwhile, Delpy’s performance is filled with so much passion that when Celine starts immediately discussing death or prodding at the way men behave, she imbues it with an eccentricity that gives the two of them something to counter each other with throughout the night. Even the quieter moments capture an emotional intensity, such as the two sharing a listening booth in a record shop. No words are spoken as they dodge each other’s eyes, taking in every moment between them as Kath Bloom sings “No, I’m not impossible to touch/I have never wanted you so much.”
Decades later, and Before Sunrise remains one of Richard Linklater’s crowning achievements. Combined with the later films in the series (Before Sunset and Before Midnight were released in 2004 and 2013, respectively), Jesse and Celine have endured for so long because like love, the films have been a collaborative process between Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. However, regardless of what happened in those other films, Before Sunrise was the first, and it was — much like its successors and Jesse and Celine’s night together — thought to be the last time audiences would see the two together. Its beauty is in the fact that it never feels like there’s a definitive endpoint in their time together; even the ending leaves a possible reunion up in the air.
It’s also powerful because Before Sunrise channels empathy in all of its encounters. Even beyond Jesse and Celine trying to understand one another and navigate the feelings they have for each other, they also encounter a cast of characters that force them to confront behavior, ideals, and the root of their motivations. The best example is a fortune teller who tells Celine her fortune. Smitten with the reading she’s received, Jesse immediately starts tearing down the fortune teller’s profession, calling it all a scam. His cynicism towards life itself begins rearing its head, but Celine disregards him and states she loves what the fortune teller said. A later encounter with a street poet has Celine staring at Jesse as he holds back his desire to call it a hustle, until she asks what’s going on and he begins tearing down the street poet’s gimmick, only to stop himself midway through a rant when Celine asks him to explain his disdain further — instead exclaiming that he loves it.
In any other pairing of people, Jesse’s constant focus on capitalism as the motivation behind all good things in life would probably turn most women away. Celine comes at the relationship from the perspective that good things come out of conflict; she says as much while the street poet is conjuring up a poem about the two lovers. Jesse worries that they’ve already had their first fight, and Celine comforts him with the acknowledgement that just because they had an argument doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. In fact, that good thing that came out of the argument was a strengthening of their relationship, and understanding of each other. Before Sunrise is a movie all about those moments of interaction where we try to understand one another. However, it’s also a deeply moving study of two specific characters put on a path based on one huge decision they made. The rest of their time is shaped by much smaller moments.
Before Sunrise will always be that one night in Vienna where two people took a chance and shared a profound moment that may or may not have changed the course of their lives. It was an intimate moment that we shared with Jesse and Celine, watching two people connect and open up with each other until they realized they had so much more they wanted to share with the other, and so little time to do it. Linklater’s film is a masterpiece in romantic storytelling because it understands that romance is not necessarily dependent on grand gestures or constant confessions of love and compassion — it’s the understanding that even talking about something completely unrelated is rooted in wanting to tell that person that specific thing. As Celine puts it, there’s magic in the attempt to understand sharing something with someone — a universal message that still feels just as powerful today.