Erik Syngle on Before Sunrise
“Our identity is partly made up of places, of the streets where we have lived and left part of ourselves…Vienna is one of these places, in which I rediscover the familiar and well known, the enchantment of things which, like friendship and love, become ever fresher with time. This feeling of ease in Vienna may derive from the city’s being a crossroads, a place of departures and returns, of people, both celebrated and obscure, whom history gathers together and then disperses, in the vagabond impermanence that is our destiny.” —Claudio Magris, Danube
We can choose the films we like, but the films we love tend to choose us, slip quietly into our lives until we look up one day and are shocked to realize there was ever a time before we knew them. It’s probably safe to say that no film ever found its audience better than Before Sunrise found the 17-year-old version of myself who went to see it on a first date in 1995. At the time, Richard Linklater’s name, if I had even heard it beforehand, probably wouldn’t have meant much to me. I had seen Dazed and Confused but didn’t associate the two films, and Slacker certainly never played in our little suburb. What drew me and my companion to see it opening night, more likely, was Ethan Hawke’s emerging star power and, most importantly, the fact that it was being billed as a good Date Movie. It’s hard for me to recapture just how important finding the right Date Movie was in the highly ritualized world of high school romance. (Keep in mind this was also just before the stupid and pandering term “Chick Flick” came into common usage.) After the ruthless self-imposed gender segregation of junior high, much of high school was spent learning that boys and girls could in fact inhabit the same cultural universe. The Date Movie was thus a crucial meeting-point, away from the social pressures of school and the watchful eye of family—and in a small town where there really was nothing else to do besides go to the movies—it was probably the first concentrated time many of us spent alone with the opposite sex. If this selection process usually involved a concession to the girl, it was a concession we boys were happy to make.
All I can clearly remember about that first screening long ago is that seeing a film about a wildly successful first date surely contributed to the “success” of my own. Perhaps counterintuitively, submitting to this fantasy of charm and effortless communication helped ease the nervousness and awkwardness of my own experience rather than set it off—here, on the screen, was the way I secretly dreamed it could be. Add to that an exotic Old World capital and a beautiful French actress with a fine command of English profanity, and it was like the cinematic equivalent of Love Potion #9. Fortunately it seemed to have the same effect on my date, and we ended up going out for several months. We even went to the prom together, but before long she went off to college and I became a senior. So it goes.
Obviously, that’s not the end of the story or I wouldn’t be here nearly a decade later still mooning over Before Sunrise. Linklater’s third released film isn’t just intelligent make-out fare for teenagers (as most of the reviews at the time treated it), but it is that as well, and no matter how much more I see in it now after having lived with it all these years, I will never be able to completely remove it from that original context. In fact, I might even be suspicious (not suspicious enough to actually care, mind you) of my current “mature” love for the film—more likely to attribute it to generational factors, the rosy glow of nostalgia, or simple familiarity—if I hadn’t stumbled onto Robin Wood’s adoring piece on the film in a back issue of Cineaction (reprinted in his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film [Columbia University Press, 1998]). Wood, who happens to be the only major critic I know of to have devoted any serious ink to the picture, also happens to be a gay man now in his seventies, which helps ease my mind about having too narrowly determined a response. Yet he lets his critical guard down immediately: “here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love” (in the classrooms where Wood’s writing was occasionally taught to me, was there any greater sin?) before regaining his composure enough to assert that “this film belongs among the dozen or so that exemplify ‘cinema’ at its finest.” And so it is the same for me, caught between an intensely personal affection that defies, in fact negates, the rational processes of criticism, and still genuinely believing that Before Sunrise is a great film by any objective artistic criteria. As it turns out, this dilemma is wholly appropriate to a film ultimately about the persistence of the romantic ideal, or more simply, movie love in the postmodern age.
As Richard Linklater’s name rose to general recognition, it came tied (and still is, to some extent) to the American Independent scene. With time, however, it has become clear that his links to that school of filmmaking aren’t nearly as important as his divergences, especially in the sensitive humanist ethos that guides his films and his complete disregard for the juggernaut of hipness—whether trendsetting or trend-chasing—that plagues so many filmmakers. (“Slacker” may have been a Gen-X buzzword in the early Nineties, but that’s as far as it went.) Before Sunrise is the film in which these qualities first truly shone through. Released while Pulp Fiction was still in theaters, its blend of poetic realism, Nouvelle Vague youthfulness and spontaneity, but mainly classical Hollywood plotting and construction must have seemed about as cool as Pat Boone in comparison. Who, young or old, Hollywood or indie, made films this embarrassingly sincere anymore, or this unabashedly romantic? The film’s plot is simple enough to survive a studio pitch-meeting with time to spare: two strangers, an American guy (Jesse/Ethan Hawke) and French girl (Cèline/Julie Delpy), meet on a train from Budapest. He convinces her to get off with him in Vienna, from where he’s flying home the next day, to spend the night exploring the city. They talk, flirt, walk around, kiss, talk some more, meet a few colorful locals, have sex, and begin to fall in love (not necessarily in that order). In the morning, they go their separate ways after deciding at the last moment to meet in Vienna again after six months. People I know who dislike the film often seem incredulous, not just at the fact that this seemingly incomplete tale was deemed worthy of sustaining a feature film, but that the depth of feelings exposed and expressed by Jesse and Cèline—the cycle of desire, fulfillment, and loss—could never “really happen” over the course of just one night. My rejoinder is that it can happen to us every day, in a fraction of that time: at the movies. Of course I find their one-night affair miraculous, and thus not “believable” in the terms of everyday reality; it’s a miracle on par with George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman’s divinely rekindled love in Voyage to Italy. But perhaps even more miraculous is the extent to which I come to care for them both in just 101 minutes. If the durability of emotions is the only measure of their reality, this would invalidate most of the experiences we’ve had in the cinema. The characters themselves are not unaware of this problem. As naïve as they may both appear to be at times, they’re also fully conscious of the unlikelihood of their situation; having found their lives to have suddenly turned into something out of a movie, they keep having to suspend their own disbelief. Cèline compares herself to Cinderella, and she’s right, it might as well be a fairy story (everyone falls asleep at the end), but one populated by psychologically complex moderns with the ability to think around their own desires. When reality intrudes, they suspend it again.
It’s well known that Linklater is a self-taught filmmaker. Luckily, this means that no one ever taught him to rely on the clichés and emotional manipulations of most Hollywood romances. We’ve become so used to the shorthand version, even in good films, that we no longer notice what we’re missing. These days it usually goes something like this: cue the song on the soundtrack, played over a montage sequence of three or four intercut activities—laughing over dinner, talking animatedly while strolling through the park, maybe a cute messy food fight. In short, a music video. (The Naked Gun serves up the definitive parody, if one were even needed.) Before Sunrise lapses into this mode briefly only once, but earns it, since the segment immediately follows the film’s most delicately observed scene, the play of glances in the record listening booth. Nor is it even a matter of Good Old Hollywood vs. Bad New Hollywood—it’s just that the stars used to be better suited for such affairs. Whether it’s the Parisian flashbacks of Casablanca or the fractured remembrances of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, they both amount to the storytelling equivalent of one of Shakespeare’s stage directions. They fall in love. (Think of how much time he could have saved in Romeo and Juliet with that.) The number of truly fleshed out, convincing representations of two plausible characters falling for each other in American film can probably be counted on one hand. The pinnacle, prior to Before Sunrise, would probably be Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember, particularly for the scenes at the grandmother’s villa. “We changed our course today.” Why do the greatest loves always seem to be born onboard moving vessels? In fact, Linklater’s film could even be seen as an audacious modernized remake of the first half of the McCarey picture, made with the knowledge that the spell is broken when the characters part and cannot be recast.
For me, that spell has always been cast as much by Vienna herself as by anything that happens in that little space between Cèline and Jesse. Filmed there entirely on location (and in fact a U.S.-Austrian coproduction), the city becomes an embodiment of the film’s heart/mind and fantasy/reality dichotomies. At once a modern Mittleuropean metropolis with bums, gypsies, and grungy nightclubs, it is also, in the words of Viennese writer Stephan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday”—the yesterday of historical Vienna, once the grandest city of Europe, and the yesterday of cinema. Stefan and Lisa strolled the Hollywood version of these streets in Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman and fell in love onboard a magical train in the Prater district, right next to the Riesenrad (giant Ferris wheel) where Harry Lime coolly threatened his best friend Holly Martins with death in The Third Man. On board that same wheel is where Jesse and Cèline finally embrace; a first kiss on the spot that Orson Welles made famous—if that’s not movie love, what is? It’s also the city of the dead that Cèline remembers having visited as a child, of the nameless tombs of suicides and of Mozart buried in a pauper’s grave. They stop for their fourth or fifth coffee of the night at the Café Sperl (where they play their confessional telephone game), one of the famous koffeehauses of fin-de-siècle Vienna and nearly unchanged for a century, where the old tuxedoed headwaiter tends to his roses and still knows his regular patrons by name; perhaps it reminds Jesse of the café culture then currently experiencing a resurgence in his own country. They encounter an odd assortment of Viennese, who not only all speak English (surprising enough) but speak poetry. The fortune teller tells of the Big Bang but seems to be describing the birth of love, the gutter poet tries to speak to both of them and for each of them simultaneously, while the local Kurt Cobain imitator sings that he feels his life pumping through him. The cumulative effect of these encounters, locations, histories, allusions—whether or not we, Jessie and Cèline, or Linklater are aware of them all—is to set the young couple’s fragile romance against an illuminated backdrop that, while never abandoning the veneer of street-realism, shows them to be modern voyagers in an enchanted city seemingly created for them to discover each other.
But the reason Jesse claims he went to Vienna is straightforward enough: it offered the cheapest flight. This introduces the film’s melancholy metaphysical themes dealing with chance, memory, and time. Even before we learn of the flight, we are introduced to Jessie and Cèline as simply two of many passengers aboard a train, picked out as if at random like in Vidor’s The Crowd. When Cèline changes her place to get away from a shouting couple, the nearest available seat is right next to his. This piling of chance upon chance may suggest destiny to some, but Linklater is agnostic enough to never definitively provide an answer. (When she refers to the incident later, Cèline suggests that “maybe [I] did it on purpose.”) Time, too, is one of the film’s major preoccupations, and not just in the obvious role it plays in giving shape to the drama. “Think of this as time travel,” says Jessie, “from then to now.” Though it’s the hook to his clever pick-up line, there’s no reason not to take him seriously. Perhaps because of its immediacy, Before Sunrise begins to feel more and more like a time capsule—for where I was when I first saw it, or last saw it, or where I will be when I next see it. Even if Linklater tends to make his metaphysical speculations through dialogue (think of his own monologues at the beginning of Slacker and the end of Waking Life) rather than through an intricate play with editing and mise-en-scène in the manner of Alain Resnais or Hou Hsiao-hsien, they are no less rich and resonant for it. The characters of Before Sunrise begin their trip with the expectation of making a memory to be savored, and knowing what we know on a second or 22nd viewing—that their promises to meet again are permanently suspended by the termination of the narrative—it is we who live out that memory as our experience of the film. As the story imperceptibly shifts gears about midway through, from the charm of instant connection to the anxiety over the inevitable loss, Cèline’s words begin to sound like an existential statement of love and a motto for the film: “Our time together is just ours. It’s our own creation.”
Contrary to the solitary pleasures of remembrance, one thing that those moved by the film cannot seem to resist is speculating on the characters’ future. (Even with its celebrated sequel, this is a pastime that I hope will not disappear; Robin Wood’s account of the possible permutations is enjoyably thorough.) There is a important clue, perhaps, to be found in an incidental detail slipped into the film’s final minutes. With the frantic concoction of future plans that becomes their final scene together, we discover in passing that the preceding day had been June 16. To anyone familiar with the work of James Joyce, that date is affectionately ingrained and celebrated around the world as Bloomsday—the day on which Ulysses takes place. That this intertextual connection is conscious and deliberate is without question, when we remember that a character from Slacker quoted from Ulysses at length (“This is the part where Leopold realizes that he’s fucked!”). The obvious link between the two works involves the representation of time. Ulysses was and remains one of the most radical attempts to bring the time-scale of the novel into line with the lived experience of human life. That a dense 700+-page novel could unfold over the course of one 18-hour day is a model that Linklater’s filmmaking has clearly strived to emulate again and again, however otherwise incompatible the two art forms may seem. (Actually, Before Sunrise may have just as much in common with Joyce’s book of the night, Finnegans Wake, which comes to mind during Cèline’s vision of being an old woman laying down to die, watching visions of her life float by.) What is less immediately apparent is Linklater’s mature understanding of the name he so casually drops. Instead of merely alluding to the difficult book he conquered, Linklater knows that June 16 became the setting of Ulysses because of its obsessive personal significance for Joyce—the day on which in 1904 he had his first date with, and began to fall in love with, his future wife and muse Nora Barnacle. (Whether Joyce’s treasured memories were historically accurate has been the subject of much speculation, but in this case it hardly matters or even enhances the effect.) I’ve always taken that as a subtle source of hope, or at least hope for hope, that June 16 might have been the start of another legendary affair and not just a “male fantasy” of a one-night stand.
In either case, I know of no ending to any film more graceful (formally, emotionally, or physically) than of Cèline and Jesse, alone once again on their separate coaches and drifting off to sleep to the strains of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Viola da Gamba. In an instant, everything that went before is made to feel as though it couldn’t have really happened, as if they are both waking up at the same time rather than falling asleep, but finding the pull of wherever they left too strong to be ignored, they close their eyes and, not for the last time in their lives, return to that place where dreams are born.
This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot’s Summer ’04 Richard Linklater symposium.
I published this as it has wonderful language that requires some meritorious review. CDC