Conversation as romance isn’t exclusive to France – we Americans do have Woody Allen, after all – but it’s certainly a stronger tradition there, thanks especially to the French New Wave. Before Sunrise – an intoxicating American indie set over the course of one night in Vienna – is something like the delightful offspring of those two influences, with Ethan Hawke as the son of Allen and Julie Delpy as the daughter of Godard.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around. As Celine, a French college student given to graveyard reveries about death, Delpy is the more neurotic of the pair. Meanwhile Jesse – the American drifter played by Hawke – is all strained swagger, if not exactly a Breathless-style antihero then at least someone who’s seen Jean-Luc Godard’s films in a cinema-appreciation class. When they impulsively get off a Paris-bound train together in Vienna and spend the night talking and walking through the city, we get a bittersweet celebration of romantic frisson – the notion that our most precious moments of connection are often the fleeting ones.
Delpy and Hawke are giving two halves of one performance, so intertwined are their contributions to the success of the film.
Directed by Richard Linklater, from a script he wrote with Kim Krizan, Before Sunrise deftly balances wide-eyed romanticism with the resignation of experience. The movie’s beauty is that it both treasures and mourns its moments at the same time. Because Jesse and Celine’s few hours together exist under a self-imposed deadline – he has a plane to catch in the morning – their words are at once flush with eager excitement and solemnly measured with great care. It’s like watching a flirtatious first date that in some weird sort of time warp is also taking place at a lifelong spouse’s death bed.
In many ways, Delpy and Hawke are giving two halves of one performance, so intertwined are their contributions to the success of the film. It’s not a matter of chemistry as much as it is cooperation. Delpy and Hawke are playing distinct characters, yes, but they’re also working together to nurture a single fictitious relationship, from its early heedlessness to its stretch of awkwardness (“This is a nice bridge”) to its full-fledged infatuation to its cruel, sudden decay. The two actors are in lock, every step of the way.
It’s our luck that they, and Linklater, allow us to listen in. One of the lovely little touches in the film is the few minutes Jesse and Celine spend in a record store’s listening booth. It captures the intimacy of such a simple act, as well as the melancholic reality of all music, especially the good songs. At some point, they end.