Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meet by chance on a train to Vienna and have an instant connection. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, they decide to tour the city together for the day before continuing on their travels. Their bond becomes more and more intimate as their day continues. However, the fact that they may never see each other again looms over their journey through the city.
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“Before Sunrise” is a film that shows how impacting a few mere hours can be in a person’s life. Through the story of Celine and Jesse, the viewer gets taken on an adventure in what can happen if one actually acts upon a thought that may seem, in a logical sense, unbelievable. It is a film that teaches the audience that life can only be lived once, and that every opportunity can be one that can hold a life-long change.
In one of the opening scenes, Jesse discusses an idea for a television show: to follow the lives of normal, everyday people through a full day of their lives. It is not coincidental that that is just what “Before Sunrise” does in chronicling the short time that Celine and Jesse have together. The film runs in a way that simulates real time, which makes the film much more personally involving and ultimately more emotionally provocative. It is easy to get caught up in their story and recognize the significance of their interactions because its style constantly reminds the audience that time is running out. By the end of the film, Celine and Jesse’s goodbye seems all the more heartbreaking because the audience has been on their remarkable personal journey right alongside them.
One of the strengths of “Before Sunrise” is that it is a very relatable idea: everyone has at least one “what if” moment, especially regarding relationships with others. Therefore, the depiction of how incredibly significant simply acting upon one of these moments can be in one’s life is very powerful. Celine and Jesse share with each other their hopes, fears and thoughts in a way that is complex and intellectual, but also unpretentious. The film is extremely conversational and articulates the thoughts and questions that many have in their minds in a way that is almost uncanny in its accuracy, akin to a truly great novel.
The on-screen chemistry between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is undeniable; it even seems more unbelievable that they wouldn’t agree to their journey together, as they seem to connect almost on a spiritual plane. Not a movement or line seems staged; it truly feels like real life. This is a testament to the strength of Richard Linklater’s direction. Although it is clear that “Before Sunrise” is the product of a brilliantly written and formulated script, the film flows in such a genuine way that it takes on a semi-documentary feel. One truly forgets they are watching actors (which is even more remarkable as the international success of both Delpy and Hawke can make it hard to forget that they are acting, even to remark on how good they are) and becomes completely drawn into the adventure of Celine and Jesse. The utter naturalness of the entire film is a fine art, for which Linklater must be commended.
The backdrop of Vienna seems a perfect fit for the blossoming of Celine and Jesse’s romantic relationship: it is filled with nostalgic sites, universally familiar through historical and cinematic events. As they visit places such as the Reisenrad Ferris wheel (famous in film history as the site of Holly Martins and Harry Lime’s meeting at the conclusion of the 1949 classic “The Third Man”), they create their own memories, blending collective and personal associative memories together in a way that is very true to life. Beautifully shot, Vienna serves as an interesting and visually striking setting for the film that adds wonderfully to the richness of the story.
The conclusion, without giving too much away, also seems perfect. Although ambiguous, upon seeing it there does not seem another way that it could have ended. The closing scene of “Before Sunrise” proves true the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and illustrates how single images can stay with a person for the rest of their life. The closing montage is more powerful than any moving image ever could be in its place. It is remarkably complete although it does not offer one clear solution. Even after viewing “Before Sunset,” the 2004 sequel in which the characters of Celine and Jesse are revisited 9 years later and seeing a clearer solution to their story, the ending of “Before Sunrise” is so beautiful and effective that the second half of the story, although wonderfully fascinating, does not even seem necessary.
“Before Sunrise” is a film that is rich in its simplicity. It is a straightforward story that is told in such a unique and thoughtful way that, like the memories Celine and Jesse made together, stays with the viewer long after its 105 minutes are over. It is a film that radiates intelligence and passion uncommon to many films. Truly, “Before Sunrise” shows its audience what a difference a day makes.