A guy and a girl meet on a train and decide to spend an impromptu night together in Vienna. They enjoy the brief time they have together riding streetcars, browsing record stores, walking by the river and musing over all of life’s big’s questions. In the hours they have in each other’s company, with a historic European city as their backdrop, they fall in love with one another. This sounds like it could be a rather cliched affair.
From the first few minutes Jesse and Celine begin talking, the path that Before Sunrise is about to set out upon is immediately made clear. This will not be a film that will feature much in the way of plot, nor will it contain scenes full of melodrama or showreel moments. It is a simple story of two strangers getting to know each other over the course of a few hours, and really, that’s about it. On the face of it, it sounds like it could be rather corny and unappealing, and honestly rather dull. It could easily be all of those things but, in fact, it isn’t. Instead, it’s actually rather brilliant, and it serves as potentially one of the most tender and touching romantic movies you’re ever likely to see. Before Sunrise is a film of true beauty and poignancy.
Writer and director Richard Linklater has enjoyed great success with a number of movies that manage to capture the little moments in life that make it worth living, whether the focus is on a group of high school kids pondering their futures over the course of a single day in 1993’s Dazed & Confused or an entire family growing and evolving over the span of over a decade in 2014’s Boyhood. Irrespective of the time frame he chooses, Linklater has always excelled in crafting humanist stories that resonate with audiences, and in Before Sunrise he does so quite beautifully once more. Again here he uses a short period of time to tell his story, although the focus this time is only on two people rather than an ensemble cast. Despite spending only a night in the company of Jesse and Celine, however, the endearing and compassionate nature of their burgeoning relationship and the manner in which it plays out undoubtedly leaves a lasting and memorable impression.
The beauty of Before Sunrise is that it the level of authenticity utilised by Linklater through his direction and screenplay makes it extremely easy as a viewer to forget that you’re even watching a film. The concept of witnessing two strangers falling in love with one another over the course of one night appears susceptible to a great deal of cliche, but the grounded manner in which the film’s protagonists get to know one another ensures this isn’t the case, and before long you feel like nothing more than a fly on the wall bearing witness to this new relationship. The attraction that is palpable from their initial meeting is built upon steadily as not to make their love feel undeserved, and both characters are written with such care and intricacy that you can’t help but feel invested in what is a compelling and heartwarming courtship. As they learn more about each other the viewer does too, and the subtle manner in which different aspects of their personality are revealed means that you are watching a connection that feels truly genuine in nature.
The brilliantly-crafted script is only part of the equation, however, and Before Sunrise‘s success is only fully achieved through two wonderful performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that bring both of their characters to life and help elevate the film to a romantic masterpiece. The pair share an electric chemistry from the first scene in which they share and with the camera focused on them and them alone, their compatibility is a necessity to the film’s potential being fully realised. Throughout the film the duo share a tangible synergy and the seemingly authentic and believable manner in which they interact, often for minutes at a time without a cut or transition, is central to how engrossing their relationship feels as a viewer. The script does not allow for much in the way of soppy proclamations of love so both actors are reliant on more subtle mannerisms to convey the feelings the characters have for one another, be it via their facial expressions or body language, yet this is not a problem for either of them. Throughout the film’s 100-minute long runtime, it’s difficult to take your eyes off of either of them.
There’s something to be said for movies with grand romantic set-pieces and tearjerking finales, but what Before Sunrise proves is that sometimes a more grounded approach can be even more effective. You can work wonders with two well-written characters, some engaging dialogue and a couple of great performances, and you’re unlikely to ever find a better example of that formula working as well as it does here.