With Before Midnight, the third in the trilogy, coming out in cinemas next week, I wanted to re-visit the story so far. This first film is from 1995 and introduces the series’ protagonists Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). It turns out that it’s set on 16 June (1994), making my timing in re-watching it rather auspicious. While fashions may have changed in 19 years, this story of two earnest young people in their early 20s finding love while on holiday is still immensely charming.
That date of course is not arbitrary: it is set on ‘Bloomsday’, which is to say the date on which James Joyce set his novel Ulysses, another story taking place in a single city over the course of a single day. It’s a nice little tip of the hat, though looking for further parallels would probably be stretching things, as Before Sunrise is primarily a romantic film about two people getting to know one another. It’s that journey which forms the entirety of the film — the way they connect with one another via conversation — starting on the train where they meet and then wandering around Vienna, from where Jesse is imminently flying out back home to the States.
What’s charming about the film is that it doesn’t try to be anything more melodramatic or forced, it just wants to follow the natural rhythms of their conversation in the course of their wandering. Through what they say, the two reveal themselves to each other and to us: Jesse is embittered by a recent failed relationship, while Céline is impassioned about social justice and the state of the world. Some of their discussion brings to mind a certain kind of cynicism and ennui familiar from the 1990s, while a lot of it is just the natural earnestness of 20-somethings who still have their lives ahead of them, and want to change the world, or at least make their mark.
The joy is in the actors interpreting their characters. If Ethan Hawke’s Jesse comes across too often as cynical and downbeat about people’s motivations, he is countered ably by Julie Delpy’s Céline. Her subtle responses to his habitual whines are wonderfully understated — a tiny hardening of her expression, meaningful pauses — though she does lose her temper at least once, when he delivers a particularly spiteful generalisation about women based on his recent relationship experience.
The film is not entirely made up of naturalistic conversation, though. Some of the silences can be just as meaningful, such as a beautifully observed scene in a record shop’s music booth (listening to a mournful slice of outsider folk music by Kath Bloom) where both of them are trying hard to act unaffectedly around the other. Even when they are talking, the locations are carefully chosen, and while most come from the kinds of places tourists might wander around (such as the ferris wheel in the Prater park), they do manage to make it a little way out of town to the Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery of the Nameless), with its gravestones marking the unknown souls who have washed up on the banks of the Danube. It’s a meaningful location — speaking to Céline’s frequently-expressed morbidity as much as to Jesse’s romanticisation of the brevity of their time together — given these two have also come down the river (albeit via train) from Budapest, and are known to each other only by their first names.
The river has always been a potent metaphor in fiction, and perhaps in time the Before series will come to be seen as a sort of filmic roman fleuve (literally, “river novel”), taking snapshots in the lives of these two characters at meaningful moments over time. Certainly Before Sunrise is just a point on a continuum — their parting is as filled with chance and hope as their first meeting. Moreover, it has a very sure sense of both its era and its protagonists. It’s a sure start to a deepening involvement with time and character that is continued by the even more enchanting Before Sunset (2004).
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Linklater and Kim Krizan; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2013 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1997).