“How do you speak such good English?”
While Slacker put Richard Linklater on the map and Dazed and Confused shot him into mainstream consciousness, Before Sunrise was the film that cemented him as an auteur of note. An intimate portrait of love depicting one assumedly solitary night for two complete strangers that becomes a romantic evening neither expected, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) take a chance on the other after candid conversation evolves into a mutual desire to not say goodbye. His flight from Vienna to America looms early the next morning while Paris awaits her return home, but for nine hours of moonlight their only worry is the now. It’s an opportunity to see what could be—young dreamers enamored by a foreign locale and the shy, trusting smile looking back at them. Anything is possible.
Inspired by a similar day Linklater had with a woman in Philadelphia years previous, Before Sunrise is the epitome of fairy tale love at first sight. A serendipitous occurrence on a European train causes both Jesse’s and Celine’s heads to lift out of their respective books and into the sightline of the other, his cautious icebreaker about a German couple’s quarrel down the aisle changing plans and destinies. At one moment simply passing the time with pseudo intellectual musings—trying at all costs to sound interesting via engaging opinions and personal memories—the next finds them unwittingly falling in love. Even though neither actually utters those words, their genuine laughter upon exiting the train, game of stolen glance tug-of-war inside a used record store, and impassioned first kiss say it all.
It’s a perfect storm arising out of the situation’s sheer impossibility. An American and a Parisian together in Vienna because of fate or accident, this night must be shared so they’ll never regret the unknown. Every inhibition that would risk blocking authenticity at home is absent because there can be no repercussions here. The odds of ever seeing the other again are slim to none so the need to be disingenuous is moot. If he finds her idealistic innocence obnoxious, he’s only wasting a few hours he would have spent alone. If she discovers his cynicism grating, the next train to Paris will make it so she never thinks of him again. It’s an ultimate no-strings-attached ordeal distilling a year of dating into one night. There simply isn’t time for anything else.
Without expectations—names aren’t even introduced until after deciding to spend the evening together—nothing holds them back. It’s hours later too before discovering if they’re single, little white lies of reasoning for being here and now replaced by truths they’re no longer afraid to share. And through gimmicky role-playing they explain their philosophies on life and love and the selfishness of it all while also admitting their initial attraction for superficial looks and the deeper pull of intellect through a game of telephone. Linklater captures lightning in a bottle as their words are delivered with increasing eye contact as the story moves along, their comfort growing as their intrigue in the other’s opinions hinges less on content than passionate belief. They don’t see eye to eye on everything but they’re never absolutely dismissive.
At times there is even a baby-faced innocence at play as embarrassed laughter strikes when silent lulls can’t readily be replaced with more rambling. Both characters hold tight to a romantic ideal whether they feel the need to let it out at first or not—they wouldn’t have otherwise agreed to this risky proposition of dropping everything without a clue to who it is they’re putting their trust in. And it isn’t about physical intimacy or conquest despite Hawke’s Jesse finding any reason he can to kiss Delpy’s Celine after their first corny-situational embrace. Their interest isn’t for sexual release but instead discovering someone who’s their equal in every possible way. To cheapen that would render their connection a lie and neither wants this memory to be anything less than perfect.
Credit Linklater for realizing authenticity in such a high-concept, spare exercise was a necessity and for enlisting Kim Krizan to co-write the script it wouldn’t end up projecting a completely male-centric viewpoint. The romance only works if we accept it as two open-minded souls coming together at a crossroads during the transition between college and adulthood rather than one gender’s recollection through biased eyes. It may not be all absolute truth, but they never pretend it is. They found a partner to comfortably engage in unfiltered dialogue like we too hope to find and while they try the practicality by putting desire aside at its end, we know in our hearts they’ve built something that cannot simply be left behind. Ted and Veronica in “How I Met Your Mother” discovered it too in an obvious homage.
Thankfully, their own realization is far from cliché because whether from weakness, strength, or love, an unwanted goodbye is never easy. So they agree to meet again at some fixed, future point as lustful attraction crescendos to its apex, refusing to believe anything could stand in the way. Five years turns to one as patience evaporates and one year turns to six months with passionate looks relaying nothing but a pure, honest, and unbreakable pact. The conclusion then falls to whatever personal happiness or anger we hold while watching—optimists believing without a doubt Jesse and Celine meet again to live happily ever after as pessimists scoff they’ll forget each other in a week. It’s a perfect romance living on in either their imaginations or ours because no matter what may happen, that one night was real.