So rarely do we get two romantic films that are actually worth sitting through to the end, and leave a lasting impression of greatness on you. But that has what Richard Linklater has accomplished with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two compelling, fantastic, beautiful films that should’ve been bad, but surprised audiences with their knowledge of the human connection.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meet on a Eurorail train. The two start talking and instantly it is visible they like each other. When Jesse’s stop in Vienna arrives, he convinces Celine to get off with him, and the two spend the day and night in the city, walking around and talking. That’s it. It’s so deceptively simple that all they do is talk, but essentially, that is the whole movie. Some will be bored by this. Others will be riveted. Their dialogue is so well-written, and it flows out of the actors’ mouths so naturally that we feel it’s almost improvised. But it isn’t… every word is scripted. Richard Linklater is a man who understands how dialogue works, the speech patterns of normal people. He has spent a sizeable amount of his career examining it – his films Slacker, Tape, and Waking Life, among others, consist of very little more than just watching people talk. But it works so well. Linklater has an undeniable talent for direction, but it is in screenwriting that we see him truly excel.
From the first moments we are enveloped with long, languid dialogue that flows so well. But eventually, it becomes more than dialogue. It becomes, so incredibly subtly, a look into the mind and soul of the people speaking. Their attitudes slowly switch gears throughout the whole film. We see anger, doubt, love, affection… so much is communicated purely through words. There is one scene where Jesse and Celine are approached by a street poet who offers to write them a poem in exchange for some money. They agree. The poet then goes about writing, and then speaks it aloud. Sure, it’s a poem. It’s a beautiful one. But keep in mind it is one of the few times in the movie where the person speaking is neither Jesse nor Celine. And at rare occasions such as these, when they are the ones being discussed by others, it’s almost as if the poem is describing them in ways and words that they’ve spent the entire movie searching for, but haven’t found until another person has spoken them. They have so much in common, but it seems that the perspective of a stranger is stronger and more valid than anything they’ve said, which astounds me.
That’s not to say what they talk about is boring… far from it. Both of them talk about the things they love and hate, and at one point Jesse begins a rant about reincarnation that resembles Linklater’s own monologue in his 1991 cult classic Slacker. It’s not something you can just write like that… Linklater obviously had imagined in his head these two characters and their entire 90-minute conversation, and so strongly known every single line and cue. I imagine when he started writing it would be almost impossible to stop. And that is easy to see reflected in the conversation itself: when Jesse and Celine get talking, sharing their passionate but naive thoughts on life, it’s so long and without pauses that we daren’t stop watching; it’s always interesting because their conversation tackles so many subjects that we don’t know where it will go next, and the more words they speak, the closer they emotionally become.
Before Sunset (2004)
Nine years after the events of the first film, Jesse is married to an American woman and has written a book about his one day with Celine all those years ago. On a press tour in France, he sees her through the window while a journalist is rambling to him. This is the first time in nine years they have seen each other. There is such a pained look of restraint on Jesse’s face here; he can’t just run out of the interview, he has to sit it out, and as he tries to look interested (and he does well at this), it becomes apparent he is itching to burst out into the street to finally see his lover from nine years prior.
Soon enough, the interview does end and the two meet up, overjoyed to see each other. They start talking, and in typical Linklater fashion, they rarely stop. Except this time, the dialogue is different to the previous film. There’s a different pace, a different tone, different emotions. Way back when, they were happy and carefree. Now they are restricted, harsher, lonelier… at first there is a tremendous awkwardness between them. But once the conversation gets going, it really gets going.
The dialogue, which was brilliant enough in the first film, is even more impressive here. This time, Linklater collaborated with Delpy and Hawke in writing the script, and its not too difficult to notice how different it feels. Not incredibly different, of course, but Delpy and Hawke, with a knowledge of how their characters speak and react, as well as the experience of living in their thirties, know enough of life to inject the feeling of dissatisfaction and bitterness that comes with age. Of course, the two aren’t completely dissatisfied and bitter; much of their conversation is very light, upbeat and at times hilarious. But as the movie progresses, and they pass through the general pleasantries, they begin to bare more of their soul, and what they discover of each other is stimulating, frightening and sympathetic.
There is of course, hanging over them, the question of how differently their lives might have turned out had they stayed together. But of course, as Linklater and the actors know, it is best in a film like this not to dwell too long on the “coulda-woulda-shoulda’s”, if you will. They do spend some time talking about how dissatisfied they are with their lives, but don’t often imply that things would be better if they’d stayed together. They are old enough to realize that in any relationship, as well as things may start, there is also eventually the tiredness of age and the repetitiveness of routine. In one intense scene in a limousine, Celine brutally rips her soul apart as she yells of how lonely and dissatisfied she feels with a life she sees as careless and spiteful. However, it is in these moments that it becomes clear how perfect they are for each other: they both feel this mutual annoyance with the way their lives have turned out, but instead of bickering about it, they gradually learn to accept this feeling, and attempt to work together to pass through that stage and have a happy relationship, if a further relationship between them is even possible (Linklater wisely does not make this clear).
When I saw this film a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking of a film I’d seen only a few weeks prior, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, which examines how two strangers, solely through conversation, manage to somehow form themselves emotionally into a copy of a couple that have been married for ten years (or perhaps it is their own bitter reality). That film, like the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, manages to completely lay out the complexities of human relationships purely through what people say, and how they say it.
Before Sunrise: 8/10
Before Sunset: 9/10
So, what do you think? Have you seen these films? Did you like them? Leave a comment with your thoughts below.