Before Sunrise (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Richard Linklater, the creator of Slackers and Dazed and Confused, has succeeded where many before him have failed -- in fashioning a modern-day romance that is both original and enthralling. Before Sunrise is nothing short of movie magic, and the kind of film that deserves to be remembered one long year from now when 1996's Oscar nominations are handed out.

Even the best romantic comedy/dramas tend to be formula-driven, frequently relying more upon actor chemistry than plot. Surprises are about as foreign to this genre as a pacifist hero is to a shoot-'em-up. Somewhere along the way, a storyteller originated the basic love story structure. Film makers have religiously followed this roadmap, rarely taking more than an occasional minor detour. With Before Sunrise, however, Linklater not only travels an entirely different route, but heads for a new destination.

Frankly, this is not the sort of film one usually expects to find in multiplexes. In fact, if it weren't in English, it might be possible to mistake this for the work of someone like Eric Rohmer. The plentiful and varied dialogue has a richness that few screenplays manage to capture. Most of Before Sunrise is talking. The characters touch on subjects ranging from language and reincarnation to sexuality and cable access shows.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train traveling through Europe. His destination is Vienna, where a flight back to America awaits him the next morning. She's on her way to Paris, where she starts classes at the Sorbonne next week. From their first moment of eye contact, they're drawn to each other. They share a meal in the lounge car, savoring the conversation more than the food, and when they arrive in Vienna, Jesse persuades Celine to disembark with him and keep him company wandering the streets until the time comes for his plane to depart. Thus begins an unforgettable screen romance.

One of the first things to notice about Before Sunrise is how completely natural it all seems. Credit both director Linklater and his two leads. The rapport between Jesse and Celine is so lacking in artifice that at times the viewer feels like a voyeur. We are privy to everything, including the sort of "unimportant" dialogue that most films shy away from. Here, its inclusion is just one of many fresh elements.

Hawke (the American grunge actor who starred opposite Winona Ryder in Reality Bites) and Delpy (the French actress from Europa Europa, White, and Killing Zoe) are nothing short of perfect. For this film to work, they have a threefold task: embrace their characters, attract each other, and connect with the audience. Needless to say, all are accomplished flawlessly. From the first stolen glance, there's never any question about their chemistry, and it takes no more time for the audience to be enraptured by Jesse and Celine than it does for them to fall for each other.

Before Sunrise is about life, romance, and love. It magnifies the little things, paying scrupulous attention to the subtleties and mannerisms of body language. There's one scene where Jesse has to restrain himself from brushing away a stray lock of Celine's hair, and another wonderful moment in a music listening booth where the characters nervously avoid eye contact.

This film is an amalgamation of such memorable scenes, yet, as they saying goes, the whole is more than a sum of its parts. Questions about fate and the transitory nature of relationships are raised, then left open for the audience to ponder. There are moments of unforced humor, and times of bittersweet poignancy. Before Sunrise speaks as much to the mind as to the heart, and much of what it says is likely to strike a responsive chord -- a rare and special accomplishment for any motion picture.

Before Sunrise (United States, 1995)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Screenplay: Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
Cinematography: Lee Daniel
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Ranked #67 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 1995-01-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1