Movies of the Week: Before Sunrise (1995) / Before Sunset (2004)

Richard Linklater directs Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Vienna and Paris in these indie romance masterpieces where two young foreign travellers meet and spend one night together in a strange city, walking and talking, falling in love… And then in an unexpected belated sequel we witness the next time they meet (older, wiser) in Paris.

“But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.”

Train tracks leading us somewhere, joining, crossing, combining. Fate visualised? Argument on a train. A middle aged married couple bicker then erupt – who’d have thought in 1994 we’d ever see Celine and Jesse get to that point… give it a couple of decades and we see a whole movie where they are EXACTLY those warring grumps. Eyes across a carriage. What are you reading? Klaus Kinski!? We pull into Vienna station the shot resembles Max Ophul’s Letter From an Unknown Woman’s first (one night only) date. Linklater is a very cinematic filmmaker who wears his influences lightly… but they are there if you look hard enough. Jesse invents reality TV. “How would you distribute it?” THE INTERNET, JESSE! SHEESH. Fascinating how this movie takes place just a breath before email and affordable mobiles became commonplace. The movie and even the ending wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t exist in the analogue world. If they met on a train in 1999 say… they would exchange emails… 2007… then these kids would add each other on Facebook… 2012… Would they even look up from their devices on the train to meaningfully interact?

“Alright, alright. Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys.” First date as time travel! Come with me if you want your marriage to survive. Jesse’s inter railing attire is on point – grey T, holey jumper, battered leather jacket, army kit bag, greasy goatee… bet he stinks of Camels. Two Austrian nerds and their play about a cow… you can tell Celine has zero intentions of going. Tram ride – we learn that Celine has a thing for hairless dolphin boys. Jesse’s bleak musings on souls and reincarnation – an idea that has stayed with me throughout adult life. Like reading Preacher and Paul Auster and Douglas Coupland as a teenager informed a lot of my eventual worldview, so did many of the musings in this film.

Record store AUF und NEU – beautiful moment, one of the most romantic and recognisable ever committed to celluloid: crammed together in a listening booth, Kath Bloom’s undiscovered folk gem Come Here playing, two attracted people who clearly want to kiss, Linklater holds on the anticipation and doubt and feeling like they are the only people on this Earth. They actually kiss a little later on the Ferris wheel at the Prater… The Third Man vibes.

Fortune teller thinks we are all stardust. “Rooster Prick!” Street poetry, Delusion Angel. He probably does cram that one word in. Jesse starts to show his cynical side more and more in these side encounters. His approach to any kind of commodified romanticism is, it is a hustle. But he has just had his heartbroken. Celine begins to betray her psychopathic traits that become more pronounced the more time we spend with her. Just how many men has she killed outside of three days we spend with her? She can identify a Turkish belly dances meaning after seeing just one whole second of it. She is also terrible at pinball. “If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know it’s almost impossible to succeed… but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

Would I, as a seasoned barman, give two tourists a free bottle of red wine “for the greatest night of your life”? Do you know what…I think I might if they asked me on a good day and were as cute as these two are. But I’ve never worked the midnight shift at a sleazy europop meat market… I’m guessing the drink slinger in such an establishment might have a different reaction to horny tourists asking for a free round. But now who is being a cynic? Sex in the park… they definitely do. Auden’s beautiful time themed poetry recited outside the opera. Early morning harpsichord practice. Julie Delpy looks so pretty in these final scenes – pale and slightly chubby. “Feels like we’re back on real time now.” Terrible plan to meet at a train station – too busy an interchange… you could miss each other… I’d worry about meeting my wife in Waterloo or Gare du Nord without a specific time and meeting point! Then we are winding down.

The lovers separated doze off on their homeward bound trajectories with only the vaguest of plans as to how they’ll meet again. I’d spend six months doubting myself, did I remember the date right?? We see shots of the locations we wandered through with these two chatterboxes… silent and deserted. Only a discarded wine bottle lays in evidence of the all too brief magical night we have just shared. An old lady slowly makes her across the scene of the consummation. Time passing, memory, who we are as we age, regrets not realised. These themes were constant in Jesse and Celine night of conversation, philosophy and flirting. And now their short, potentially one time only, interlude together is just a memory of a very old lady, reliving her life on a death bed. Or a young boy fantasising about love to come. Before Sunrise is about how ephemeral a moment or a love or a conversation truly is, made at a time where first dates were not catalogued online or filmed as entertainment.

I cannot describe to you how exciting it was to discover Linklater, Delpy and Hawke were returning to these characters again 9 years later. After 9 years of wearing out the VHS, and imagining whether they kept their transatlantic date in Vienna six months later, we were finally going to spend another day with these two lovers. We didn’t deserve to, we never expected to… and then it was showing at a Cineworld. I had higher anticipation for this than The Phantom Menace. I’m going to confess watching it for the first time in the cinema I was utterly enthralled. I’ve rarely felt so emotionally connected to two characters in a film. And like it’s predecessor even though I was already pre-sold to love Before Sunset… I find it rewards further and further the more I rewatch it.

This time we start with the deserted locations. They’ll soon be filled with chatter and tracking shots, reconnection and recriminations but for now they lie dormant. Paris is an infinitely more familiar setting than Vienna… we’ve walked these streets ourselves… seen these sight. Though (note to self) I must find that elevated garden they spend the late afternoon in.

Case In Point: Shakespeare And Company… no trip to Paris is complete without poking your head in and balking at the way over inflated prices of the stock. Jesse has turned our private movie romance into an arty farty novel. THIS TIME. Would his 23 year old self condone this commodified romanticism I wonder? An interview winding down, he notices Celine in the corner. He stumbles over his words to the journalist. Our hearts stop. He looks weathered, wolf-ish, slightly hollowed out by a bad marriage (one he avoids mentioning for the longest time possible). She looks fabulous – still stunning but all trace of the gauche young romantic has gone. She’s a sophisticated adult.

We are walking and talking through the back streets again. Did they meet in December 1994? Jesse went but initially lies about doing so. Celine’s grandmother died and fate cruelly set her funeral on the day we kinda all knew they never would reunite. Has the broken promise of true love jaded Jesse? Kinda… he settled into a bad relationship. And what of Celine?… She cannot commit knowing she once met the perfect man who no one else can live up to. Their fetishised, fantasised but real memory of each slowly is revealed to have tragic consequences on their ability to love others. The initial small talk, big talk, attempt to recapture the magic turns out to be a poker game. Jesse keeps trying to angle the conversation towards sex. Celine circles whether the night was quite the life changing event his book and her diaries make it out to be. Both are cautious to admit they want, need and have to be with each other. Oof!

It is a darker, more mature film. The lightness of the original is replaced with a cynicism you hope will be defeated. There’s pain here that wasn’t obvious in the original. Their conversations are just as deep, erudite, playfully combative but the introspection drives the content now. Whereas in 1994 they were a pair eager to figure out everything about the world, now they are less comfortable probing even themselves. Celine is just relieved Jesse hasn’t turned into one of those “freedom fries Americans.” In 2004 that was a true concern, but isn’t that telling she would think him capable of such a personality shift while I think we all know Jesse probably expects Celine to be exactly the same dream girl he met all those summers ago?

Linklater’s direction is more obvious. The real time conceit isn’t showy but to achieve such a thing naturally without drawing too much attention to itself is a skill no other director has succeeded at. There are quirks that you wonder whether they are flubs or meaningful. The middle sequence in the park has a man in a red shirt approach the camera yet when the shot changes he takes a continuity breaking amount of time to reappear in the new angle. Why edit there? In the same scene, when Jesse talks about existentialism, a reflection of just him flashes in a window. You could say these are happy accidents… what with Linklater being such a soft footprint visualist… but their cafe catch-up is framed with a romantic date going on behind Jesse, the little boy grown up, while Celine has a cynical loner hanging behind her throughout. There’s subtle purpose here.

And then we have one of the best endings of any movie ever. Up there with The Italian Job, Miller’s Crossing and Say Anything… Jesse in Celine’s apartment watching her dance about to Nina Simone’s “Just In Time”. His driver waiting outside, his plane back to a failing relationship probably already at the boarding gate. Celine casually mentions “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” He smiles. We know exactly what will happen on the fade out. No cliffhanger this time. They are together.

Influenced by My Dinner With Andre but firmly in the romance genre I’m surprised the Before movies haven’t inspired a whole generation of walking and talking movies. The Obama first date fantasy Southside With You is the only directly influenced film I can think of off the top of my head. Maybe their on location nature makes them now too expensive to budget for new filmmakers? Maybe everyone knows Linklater has done it perfectly three times so why try to beat the master?


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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