Not even a decade has passed since Before Sunrise was first released and yet seeing it now gives rise to conjecture as to how naive it might seem to young people today, college kids like the film’s two central characters. Looking back to what seems a more innocent age (pre-GWB-NewSpeak), even after such a short time, is such ingenuousness still possible?
Older folks looking at Before Sunrise likely will not identify directly with its two young lovers, but might wax nostalgic for the guileless days of youth, for the memories of an emotional mindset from their past, doubtlessly romanticized as memories are wont to be by the passage of time.
Before Sunrise is surely both romance and romanticized. The couple meet on a train from Budapest–he, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American headed for Vienna and a flight home; she, Celine (Julie Delpy), a Frenchwoman, returning to Paris to her studies at the Sorbonne. They’re both sensitive, bright, articulate, and attractive and they slide into first-date-type conversation with confidence and barely concealed mutual attraction. This is decidedly not the "resistance and impediments to be overcome" scenario of the traditional romantic comedy.
By the time the train reaches Vienna, Jesse is thoroughly caught up with his charming companion and doesn’t want their visit to end. He talks her into getting off the train and spending the time with him until his plane leaves the next morning. She readily agrees and the two set off on a tour of the city that gives director Richard Linklater (Waking Life, The School of Rock) the chance to provide glorious backgrounds of that glittering city–presented in a scrubbed and idealized, i.e., romantic way.
They talk about all the expected things–careers, parents, aging and mortality, Life and Death, ideals vs. reality, relationships and love. Much of the chatting is predictable, but Linklater and his frequent co-writer Kim Krizan have an ear for the way kids talk. Combined with the comfortably natural performances by the two leads and adept direction, the dialogue is delivered with a sense of spontaneity, even improvisation, which provides the impression of authenticity. And, if it occasionally slips into banality, what student conversation doesn’t?
In a fine nonverbal moment, the two stand in a closet-like listening booth in a record store. Forced by the tight space into close physical contact, conversation stopped by the music, they somewhat shyly eye each other, both clearly interested and looking for contact, but each quickly turning away when becoming aware the other is looking their way–momentary meetings of glances that are a mixture of trepidation and desire.
They have a series of encounters (a palm reader, a panhandling poet) calculated to stimulate their conversation; they finally kiss (she the initiator, clearly the more sexually sophisticated and uninhibited) while on a ferris wheel. They somewhat coyly play a game, pretending to talk on the telephone to other people, a way of allowing themselves to say things about each other that they can’t quite say directly. Throughout, both Hawke (Snow Falling on Cedars, Hamlet) and Delpy display the unusual attribute of being able to listen, a significant plus in a film that is so fully centered on conversation.
It all has a low-keyed charm, sustained by the appeal of the young actors (Hawke was 25 at the time, easily passing for 20; Delpy’s a year older). While the couple get serious and philosophical in their courtship dance, Before Sunrise maintains an awareness of their earnestness without itself putting on airs of profundity. At the same time, Linklater never condescends to his characters. What might have become pretentious and heavy manages to float on the delicious promise of young romance–yearning, earnest, joyful and bittersweet.