Love’s Moment:
Before Sunrise
and Before Sunset

(Richard Linklater, USA, 1995 & 2004)


I did not much like Richard Linkater’s Before Sunrise (1995) when I first saw it, at the moment of its international release. I don’t remember what mood I was in then – it must have been a rather sour and shut-down state – but how could I have so comprehensively missed its joys?


How could I have missed the perfect, delicate structure of the film’s progression of events (within the wonderfully developed arc of a single day-night-morning), or its touchingly observed (almost Hitchcockian at moments) mise en scène of growing private and interpersonal emotions struggling to express themselves within the confines of various public spaces? How could I have judged it, on the contrary, as an artless, talk-heavy “indie” American film, tainted by a comparison with the likes of Kevin Smith and Whit Stillman? How could I have concluded (in the review I wrote at the time) that there are “no epiphanies in this gab-fest, only a few nice, brittle jokes” and that, while being reasonably “charming and enjoyable”, the film was “finally rather forgettable”? 


How could I have written that “Linklater’s thin script cannot sustain its fragile mood for very long. The chat that goes on between Julie Delpy (as Céline) and Ethan Hawke (as Jesse) hits a superficial groove quite early on, and keeps raking over the same topics: the difference between men and women, idealism versus pragmatism, the aimless disenchantment of contemporary youth” – without sensing how intimately tied to the inner lives of the characters these chats are?


And how could I have figured for a single moment that Before Sunrise “repeats the sin of much contemporary romantic comedy: it just doesn’t succeed in making the woman’s part a real, equal, reciprocal match for the man’s; Delpy/Céline is just never as wiry, funny or charming as Hawke/Jesse”? Robin Wood had a much clearer vision of this aspect: “From first scene to last, Before Sunrise systematically and rigorously resists encouraging identification with one character above or against the other”, adding that “it’s difficult to think of any other film that achieves quite this feat”. (1)


Stumbling upon Before Sunrise one day on afternoon television in 2003 – during its long-take tramcar scene – I was stunned by its detailed beauty, by its sense of space and place and incident. Not to mention the unimpeachable loveableness of its two leading players, both as fictional characters and pure screen presences. Wood again says it well: “Have any two actors ever given themselves more completely, more generously, more nakedly, to a film?” Watching the whole thing again (several times) since then on DVD, I am now convinced that Before Sunrise is among the great films of the ‘90s, and, alongside School of Rock (2003), certainly Linklater’s best. Then along came Before Sunset (2004) … but more on that later.


In 1995, Before Sunrise landed in the midst of an often dispiriting American romantic comedy revival – Only You (Norman Jewison, 1994), Miami Rhapsody (David Frankel, 1995), I.Q. (Fred Schepisi, 1994), Speechless (Ron Underwood, 1994) and While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub, 1995), as well as a re-issue of An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), sometimes watched on TV by the characters in these modern films – and this was the context within which I grasped it at the time. These retro romantic comedies of the ‘90s were self-consciously in the classic mode – sometimes set during Christmas; often about travel to exotic foreign places; stories of initial hate slowly turning to love; tales of love as a liberation from social constraint, or a coming to know oneself and one’s true heart-desires.


But then there are other sorts of modern, even modernist romantic comedies, ones that try to bring a fresh angle to the revival of the great old formulae – let’s call them neo romantic comedies. We could start with films that are resolutely anti-romantic, totally cynical or ironic in relation to the dreams and dramas of romantic love. I remember one night, many years ago, seeing a film on TV directed by an Old Hollywood trouper, Richard Brooks, who once made sturdy, tough films like The Professionals (1966). But this later film, The Happy Ending (1969), was part of his attempt to be taken as a gritty, sophisticated, jagged American director in the fast-approaching decade of ‘70s, free of the dreamy fantasies of the old days in Hollywood – an attempt that took him all the way to that violent, hysterical cause célèbre, Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977).


The Happy Ending is a relentlessly miserable experience: kitchen-sink realism of the most depressing kind, wheeled in to demolish every old ideal of true love, love at first sight, love everlasting, happy families in love, you name it. The title was corrosively, bitterly ironic, of course: there is no happy ending in this movie. By far the most distressing aspect of this deliberately upsetting (and today completely forgotten) film was the way Brooks used wonderful stars from the studio era, especially Jean Simmons and Teresa Wright. These fine actors were, naturally, showing the signs of age in 1969, and Brooks mercilessly dwelt on their frailty, wrinkles and hesitations of movement. A cinema of cruelty …


Like so many anti-romantic movies, The Happy Ending is based on a dark, disillusioned premise. Brooks’ idea was to use characters who were themselves hopelessly duped, in their fair, innocent youth, by the dreams and illusions of romantic love, Hollywood-style. Decades later, when we pick up their story, these characters are surveying the shattered pieces of their horrible, loveless, married existences, a reality so terribly far from their dream.


There are related films that, not quite so grimly or hopelessly as Brooks’, compare the mundane realities of people’s lives with the fantasies that have influenced them. This is the sort of modern romantic comedy that weighs up the illusions, criticises the unreal expectations that people sometimes have, works through the real problems of intimacy, commitment, ageing and sexual appetite – but which still, at the end of all this, believes in love and its transformative, vital power. Here I am thinking of Robert Altman’s rarely screened A Perfect Couple (1979), John Cassavetes’ marvellous Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), and one of Paul Cox’s better, more modest efforts, Lonely Hearts (1981). Woody Allen, too, works in this fruitful zone between grey disillusionment and the bright enchantment (or re-enchantment) of the heart. It’s the overlap zone between rom-com and comedy of manners.


There is another kind of neo romantic comedy that is determinedly modern, both in its surface look and its themes: films that take on topics like queer love, group love, bisexuality, open relationships, and so on. There have been many of this kind since the early ‘90s, basically teen or twentysomething movies like Three of Hearts (Yurek Bogayevicz, 1993), Threesome (Andrew Fleming, 1994), the delightful Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994) and Spanking the Monkey (David O. Russell, 1994) – the last of which tackles masturbation and the incest taboo within the nuclear family, amongst other interesting topics. None of these films are chest-beating, sermonising affairs, although they often graze past serious moments, and have a basically progressive political agenda. However, trying to stay close to the spirit of the romantic comedy, they keep themselves light and whimsical, and retain the old “life’s like that” tag line waiting in the wings for the final fade-out.


A particular subset of this group of films concentrates on the so-called slackers of Generation X: those strange teens and twentysomethings whose grasp of reality, morality and emotion is supposedly so damnably weird and new-fangled that, if by chance they happen to fall in love, you can bet it will be a love like no other ever previously seen on screen. Hal Hartley’s films are all about this, as are, in a more militantly queer spirit, those of Gregg Araki. But you can tell from a mile off when one of these Generation X movies is about to lose its nerve and turn into just another retro-romantic comedy about picking the right guy or gal and making an old-fashioned commitment. That’s what happened to Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994), for instance.


All this talk of slackers, Generation X and laid-back love brings us to Before Sunrise. Is it really a romantic comedy? Many people would think of it instead as a love story, because the laughs are low-key, incidental, emerging purely from the interactions and chat of the two central characters. But it’s not really a dramatic love story in the manner of Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), the Meryl Streep/Robert De Niro vehicle Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard, 1984) or even Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987). There is no great drama of love in Before Sunrise, no renunciation, no confrontation with partners thrown over, no violent change of lifestyle. No obstacles in the way of love, really – it’s a tale of existential choice – beyond a looming sense of the real, practical world and its daily obligations. Linklater keeps the tone unmomentous as he did in his previous effort, the teen mosaic Dazed and Confused (1993).


Watching Linklater’s relaxed take on romantic comedy in 1995, I recalled the words of American director Arthur Penn. In the ‘80s, Penn turned down the opportunity to direct Falling in Love, because for him it had no real tension. The characters who fall in love in that movie (according to Penn) are too much alike – it’s as if someone were falling in love with themselves, with their mirror image. At the very least (Penn suggested), one of them has to be an urban dweller, while the other comes from the suburbs! For Penn, there had to be a difference between the characters in order to have potential fiction and real tension: a class difference, or a racial difference, a lifestyle difference, anything. “You have to institute difference”: a rich slogan. But such differences, although they exist in Before Sunrise, are certainly not a major ingredient; at least, not in the sense that they create or drive the intrigue. Again, these traits of difference are philosophical, existential.


There are aspects of Before Sunrise not totally unrelated to the elements we find in the retro-romantic comedies that have appeared since the dawn of the ‘90s. Like in Only You, there’s an exotic, European backdrop. There’s an inter-cultural frisson between the lovers (here, an American guy and a French girl), like between Antonio Banderas and Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody. There’s that old device beloved of the classic romantic comedies: sexual tension or deferment, whereby it takes a hell of a long screen time before the main characters start getting it on. Television has taken over deferment in a big way in the age of safe sex – it’s the Moonlighting (1985-1989) trick, used subsequently in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and The X-Files (1993-2018), among others. It must be said here that Linklater delivers the sexual tension game more skillfully and deliciously than just about any contemporary romantic comedy, whether retro, anti or neo – right down to a discreet did-they-or-didn’t-they ellipse just before that fearsome sunrise. 


But one can easily overstate the American romantic comedy genre influences and context in reference to this special, delicate, quite individual film. Understandably for a project that is an Austrian-American co-production (made under the auspices of the same scheme that resulted in Jon Jost’s Vienna-set and uncompleted Albrecht’s Flügel [1994]), it mixes up rom-com influences with other elements coming mainly from European art cinema. This mix is evident from the casting. Hawke as Jesse has an attractive rebel-beatnik aura, sensitive, intelligent, goofy – and also evasive when it comes to emotional declaration or an admission of any romantic yearnings. That all comes with the territory mapped out for this star by Reality Bites.


Delpy, on the other hand, has been in some gloomy European or Euro-styled films such as the odd, ponderous, incest fantasia Voyager (Volker Schlondorff, 1991) and the AIDS-displaced fever-dream Mauvais sang (Leos Carax, 1986). Krzysztof Kieślowski gave her a part in a black, inverted romantic comedy, the tragic love-gone-wrong story of Three Colours: White (1993). Delpy had some spectacularly fetishised roles across all these movies, always figuring as some kind of male projection, inside some kind of male fantasy. Before Sunrise gives her an earthier role (which gets even earthier in the sequels, and in the films she has directed herself in). She plays a smart, savvy, hip, modern woman; Céline gets to deflate Jesse’s sillier flights of egoistic pretension with considerable aplomb. (A moment where she unexpectedly makes a “you’re crazy” gesture with her finger and a vocal sound effect is one of the funniest and loveliest in the entire film.)


The European art cinema influence shows up in the way Before Sunrise is plotted, and its entire feel. Jesse and Céline meet as strangers on a train and impulsively decide to spend a night wandering around Vienna together. Wood sees (because of the Viennese setting) echoes of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), but I believe there is far more of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953) here – particularly when these budding lovers have random, meaningful encounters with cemeteries (death or a sense of mortality is a central motif), posters, a street poet, and the gorgeous Bach harpsichord music coming out of a building basement.


Like in Rossellini’s film, wandering through a foreign place and experiencing its culture and manners brings not only intoxication, but also disquiet – a feeling of being unsettled deep in one’s soul: a heady but also queasy feeling of being not yourself in this time and place, yet more deeply and truly yourself than you have ever been before.


As in Dazed and Confused, Linklater displays his good ear for music: in the best scene of Before Sunrise, he jams Céline and Jesse into a pokey listening booth in a somewhat old-fashioned Viennese record shop – it’s old-fashioned because they still sell vinyl LPs – and they squirm, trying to avoid each other’s eyes as they listen to an earnest folk tune by Kath Bloom, “Come Here”. I call this mise en scène Hitchcockian because Hitch himself used this very same example of private/public interference, taken from the spatiality of the real, everyday world, and varied it to sinister ends in Strangers on a Train (1951). (2) Céline and Jese are also, of course, initially strangers on a train! But virtually every scene in Before Sunrise offers a similar example of the emotionally charged (or emotionally repressive) spaces of everyday architecture: bars, restaurants, elevated cable cars (where they kiss, above the world), paths beside a stream …


Come here … At first, through those tinny speakers in that booming record shop listening room, Bloom’s song sounds faintly absurd, or at least comical in this context. But suddenly, Linklater releases the song to the open air in the following scene, and suddenly it becomes expansive and poetic. It’s a sublime moment of the redemption of a pop-folk fragment; like much great cinema, this transition takes us beyond our blinkered, individual taste systems. (Or it should: my only demurral from Wood is that he refers to this song as “not-very-distinguished”, and declines to even identify it in the way he so fastidiously identifies the classical music pieces. Snobbery! And he later violently rejected School of Rock for its anti-classical music jokes. Strange behaviour.)


It is possible to think – as I shamefully did in 1995 – that Linklater is not terribly interested in the idea of craft in cinema. A more sympathetic eye might have been led in a wiser direction by, for example, the subtle, reframing camera movement around the couple as the fortune teller approaches – one of many small moves in the film that wield, on repeated viewings, tremendous emotional power. The notion that Linklater’s style is “unadorned and functional”, even “quite flat” (as I wrote in my initial review), is a misapprehension that is stoked by Jesse’s speech (similar to some of Linklater’s own pronouncements from the period) about a cable television station that plans to document daily life all over the world, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. But it would be dead wrong to equate Linklater’s own work, at least in its material detail, with this kind of extreme devotion to the banality of the everyday and the wispy, whimsical ephemerality of much ordinary life experience. (3) Linklater reaches the same spiritual goal, but through highly crafted means.


Before Sunrise is a fully achieved work of art, far from the exercise in improv and laid-back observation it has been sometimes mistaken for. Like Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002 – with which it forms a fascinating diptych), it seizes the detail of the everyday and transforms it into rich, poetic metaphor, without for one moment losing its line to the rich, human presences whose trembling trajectory it so finely stages. And it is not the end of Jesse and Céline’s story: there they are, still talking their pillow talk in Waking Life (2001), and more importantly a full-blown nine-years-later sequel, Before Sunset – for once, a follow-up idea with staggering possibilities, which all Linklater fans (these days I’m one, too) were dying to discover.


If there is a Holy Grail that virtually every film by Linklater tenaciously pursues, it is the ideal of living in a way that is “totally open to the moment” – as many of his protagonists might describe it. From Slacker (1991) onwards, his hyper-talkative characters aspire to this heightened sensitivity within themselves – allied with the romantic dream of connecting, almost by chance, to another person who shares that same, heightened state. These poignant people want to grasp the moment together – and they want to make it last for an eternity.


As the filmmaker who tells this sort of story, Linklater is able to go beyond the sometimes comic ditherings and fumblings of his characters, in order to reach another, more contemplative, but no less anguished level. Within each scene, he too tries to capture the immediacy of the moment in all its vibrant, messy complexity. But he realises that a film as a whole can offer much more than the illusion of an eternal moment. It can also provide a reflection on these dreams of spontaneity and fusion, and show what happens to them within the context of passing time, of personal and social history. (Curiously and remarkably, the three best genres for dealing with this theme – romantic comedy, sports movie, and putting-on-a-show musical – are all forms that Linklater has worked in.) The ultimate question left open in the story of Before Sunrise – would Jesse and Céline show up six months later for their second, appointed meeting? – vividly dramatised the question of whether the moment that they shared would or could  survive the steady onslaught of daily reality.


At the start of Before Sunset, Jesse is launching his first novel in a Paris bookstore. He has, of course, lightly fictionalised his Viennese experience of nine years previously. As he completes his spiel to journalists, he looks up: Céline is standing there, silently waiting for him. No lover of the original film can resist this perfect, tantalising opening. But where can Jesse and Céline go from here? That, once again, is Linklater’s deepest question. What remains of the fire of their moment – nothing, something, anything, everything? This time, their interaction is bound to be different.


For starters, Céline is longer on holiday in an exotic city; she is at home, in her daily life. So Linklater eschews the parade of eccentric characters and symbolic sites on which the original story was structured – necessarily losing, along the way, the enriching evocation of Voyage in Italy. And then, naturally, a lot of water has passed under the bridge for both of them – experiences, relationships, obligations – and for the wide world, too. (Let us note, in passing, a rare, productive collision of art and scholarship: Linklater is obviously a close reader of Wood, and particularly the article on Before Sunrise that I have cited – since it seems to have suggested some aspects of the script of Before Sunset! Apparently, after 1995, the filmmaker even sent his scripts-in-progress to the critic for comment – and the comment was usually, “Yes, well, it’s not as good as Before Sunrise, is it?”)


So, Céline and Jesse go walking. It is possible to find the central section of this second-time-around film a little banal and uneventful in comparison with Before Sunrise. Some aspects of the script – the credit is shared by Linklater with his two brilliant actors (where the original co-writer credit was for Kim Krizan, author of Spy in the House of Anaïs Nin) – seem forced, such as the contrast of French versus American manners, or the discussion of global politics. Most sorely missing is the mise en scène characteristic of the original, that exquisite tension between public and private spaces.


But there are, again, subtle riches here. What would normally count in the craft of screenwriting as mere backstory – the details of what happened to Jesse and Céline between the end of the first movie and the start of this one – becomes crucially important. On a superficial level, Before Sunset is virtually plotless – a miniature or vignette, the record of a few hours. But its true plot is the intricately structured way in which Céline and Jesse gradually open up to each other about their respective backstories. What they each choose to tell, how, and in what order – as well as the fine details of what they remember, and how different those memories are, not to mention their evasions or outright lies in confessing their feelings – become the substance of the movie. Linklater is particularly good at suggesting how men and women differ in their recollection of sexual encounters (even if this too, I suspect, is one of those Venus/Mars pop clichés to which his films are sometimes prone).


The very title, Before Sunset, gives this continuation of Jesse and Céline’s story a melancholic pall. Mid-life crisis seems to have come rather early for these good-looking, well-off professionals in their early 30s. (4) Before Sunset overloads the dice in this regard. The more dissatisfied in their lives that Jesse and Céline seem, the more prone they are to be gripped by the possibly foolish romantic notion of “the one that got away” (the theme seized on by the movie’s publicity campaign), and the less equipped they become to negotiate daily reality. Linklater, I feel, also loses sight of this bigger picture, periodically.


But who can blame him? The romanticism of this story is powerful. Before Sunset should be seen with a large audience. It is in this state that the film achieves a precious effect of transparency: audiences react to it in a direct, connected way, as they might to an episode of their favourite long-form TV series – noting and reacting to every thrust and parry in the dialogue, every gesture that promises either breakthrough or breakdown in the characters and their fragile emotional relationship.


About fifteen minutes before the end, Jesse and Céline finally get into one of those tight spots reminiscent of Before Sunrise – sitting in the back of a chauffeured cab destined to take Jesse to the airport. From that point on, Linklater refinds the romantic tension of Before Sunrise – and adds to it nine years of accumulated doubt, pain and regret. The closing moments are absolutely superb, brilliantly playing on at least two conceptions of time: the pressing time of the deadline versus the time that Céline dramatises in her affectionate mimicry of Nina Simone’s song – expansive time, suspended time, ‘all the time in the world’. It is in the interval between these two time frames that a cinematic love story occurs.


Henceforth, Linklater’s artistic integrity as a filmmaker is really on the line. He could, if he so wished, keep pursuing this project for decades to come, as François Truffaut did in his Antoine Doinel saga (1959-1979). Or he could simply leave us with every question arising from the portrait of a relationship that has really only taken up parts of two days nine years apart – a sunrise and a sunset. Maybe the love story of Jesse and Céline is simply too fragile to pursue any further into the wilds of time and history. Or maybe that fragility is, after all, the point.


MORE Linklater: The Newton Boys, SubUrbia, Boyhood



NOTES (2021)

1. Robin Wood, “Rethinking Romantic Love: Before Sunrise”, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1998). My quotations in this essay are from the earlier magazine version, “The Little Space In Between: Preliminary Notes on Before Sunrise”, CineAction, no. 47 (October 1996). back


2. For a longer discussion of the dynamics of this scene, see my Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave, 2014). back


3. For more on this aspect in his work, see my “Linklater, or Super-8 Flare: ‘I Do Not Know That Guy!’”, Transit, 17 July 2013. back


4. This problem of premature melancholia is exacerbated in Before Midnight (2013), which I generally found disappointing (as I have found much of Linklater’s work since the genial The Bad News Bears [2005], apart from Where’d You Go, Bernadette? [2019]). Indeed, I’d probably revert to some of the harsh words I wrote in 1995 about Before Sunrise if I had to review Before Midnight! As of 2021, it seems there will be no fourth instalment in the Céline/Jesse chronicle – apart, that is, from an inspired audiovisual essay by Rob Stone, Before the End (2020). back


© Adrian Martin September 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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