It’s gotten to where it is really difficult to find a good romantic drama or a good romantic comedy out of the host of mediocre to bad films that Hollywood churns out these days. So many of these movies employ the same stale formulas and the same conventional approach to storytelling. Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” is an intelligent and fresh romantic drama that is anything but conventional. Linklater wrote and directed this story of two strangers who meet, take a chance, and truly connect.
“Before Sunrise” is built around an extremely minimal plot. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet while on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse is an American heading to Vienna where he is to catch a plane to the United States. Celine is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and is returning after a trip to visit her grandmother. The two enjoy a conversation and they both sense a connection between them. The train arrives at Vienna in the early evening and Jesse’s flight doesn’t leave until the next morning. So he convinces Celine to skip her connecting train to Paris the spend the night with him walking through the streets of Vienna.
The rest of the movie follows them as they simply walk and talk. As they stroll through some of the city’s streets, cemeteries, and parks, they share more and more about each other – their beliefs, their pasts, their outlooks, their fears – and we the audience learn who they both are with each passing conversation. Even more, we watch as a spark of attraction turns into romance as the night continues. What’s even more interesting is watching the two pour their hearts out to each other as their time together begins to run out. There is an awareness between them that once she boards the train and he heads to the airport they may never see each other again. Linklater translates that reality to the audience very well and it’s a lot of what drives the second half of the film.
Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy give great performances in a film requiring a lot of dialogue, some delivered through very long takes. The script almost feels as though it were written with them in mind, particularly Hawke, when actually Linklater had a hard time finding the perfect actors for the part. Hawke and Delphy work off of each other wonderfully and it’s their natural genuineness mixed with a perfect handling of the characters that sells both them and their romance. While Linklater brought aboard Kim Krizan to add a solid female influence into the story, it’s also said that both Hawke and Delphy contributed to the script. I think that’s another key reason that they work so well with the material.
Now there’s no denying that “Before Sunrise” is very talky and on the surface there isn’t a lot that happens. And even though I loved the glimpse into Vienna’s culture, Linklater – while certainly using it to a degree – doesn’t make the city and the culture a key player in the film in the same way as say Woody Allen did with Paris. It’s truly a movie about two strangers connecting and talking. Now as I mentioned, there is a meatier subtext and a more grounded and authentic look at spontaneity, personal reflection, and romance. But I can see where Linklater could have used the Vienna setting more to the movie’s advantage.
Overall, “Before Sunrise” is honest and straight-forward. There are no false moments or pretenses from the film, the characters, or the story and that’s one of the things that makes it work so incredibly well. You believe in the characters and you believe in their romance even though it’s based on one small spontaneous act. Watching these characters unfold was a delight and the ending didn’t undo what the rest of the movie accomplished. “Before Sunrise” may not be for everyone, but it’s a truly romantic yet in some ways sad look at two individuals who aren’t nearly as assured as they let on to be.