Time Capsule: Linklater’s timeless romance, ‘Before Sunrise’ turns 20

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Time Capsule: Linklater’s timeless romance, ‘Before Sunrise’ turns 20

By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

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Although January has become a cinematic dumping ground for mental vacations such as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” Liam Neeson saving his daughter “one last time” or Kevin Hart movies, the occasional great film can sneak onto the schedule, much like “Before Sunrise” did in 1995. 

Twenty years later, it’s still hard to believe that one of the best cinematic romances doesn’t have a plot, on-screen sex or a tragic ending.

Richard Linklater could transform from Texan indie forefather to minor household name this Oscar season, but even if you took away “Boyhood,” the presumed Best Picture front-runner, he would still have one of the most varied and accomplished careers of any working director. His early run of “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Sunrise” — which all took place in one day, in one place — set the mold for his freewheeling and philosophical, but contained career. Sure, some critics have (mis)labeled Linklater as a “slacker,” but he’s nearly kept up a one-movie-per-year output with minimal missteps since the early ’90s — even alongside filming “Boyhood,” that 12-year feat of a movie. His two unlikely sequels to “Before Sunrise” also adds the rarely warranted trilogy-notch to his belt.

“Before Sunrise,” which was co-written by Linklater and Kim Krizan — in her only direct screenwriting credit — begins on a train cruising through Austria. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, meets Celine (Julie Delpy) from France. They talk. They get off the train together in Vienna, and then they talk some more. By the end of the movie, it’s unclear if they’ll ever see each other again. It doesn’t sound like much for a 105-minute feature, but the perceptive Jesse and Celine are more interesting than anyone you know.

If you met Linklater, chances are he wouldn’t want to talk about any of his movies, actors or awards hype — he’d cut right to the meaningful stuff. Just 10 minutes into their screen time together, Jesse and Celine have already discussed love, death and their greatest fears—even before exchanging their names. Since “Sunrise” is loosely based on a night Linklater spent with a woman he met in Philadelphia, you have to wonder if their conversation was that immediate.

Celine and Jesse’s banter seems so effortless and rhythmic that it’s jarring when Jesse finally asks her to get off the train with him in Vienna. He has to catch a flight back to the U.S. the next day, so it could be his last chance to see Celine. For the first time, he seems nervous, nagging her like a sixth grader asking out his crush in the cafeteria. It’s a leap of faith for Celine, since a similar “trust a strange man in a strange city” setup appears more often in horror films than in romance.

But there’s no kidnapping or slashing in Vienna — Jesse and Celine just walk aimlessly through the city, stumbling into isolated, nebulous situations. Linklater masterfully makes odd encounters with a palm reader, street performers and a homeless poet seem natural, much like he did in “Slacker” with the trendy Austin community.

Linklater’s navigation of these rambling, small moments makes “Before Sunrise” special, but the film works best in the context of its superior successors, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” which were released nine years apart in 2004 and 2013. If Vienna is the first date, then their surprise Parisian reunion in “Sunset” is the honeymoon and Greece in “Midnight” is the Hail-Mary-moon. They share an eternal, turbulent love, but by the latest installment, we only see flashes of youthful interplay in their decade-old relationship.

“Before Sunrise” has its mind on the future right from the start — after watching an angry couple storm out of the train car, Celine asks Jesse, “Have you ever heard that as couples grow older, they lose the ability to hear each other?” When Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train, he asks her to leap 10 and 20 years into the future, assuming that she’s stuck in an unsatisfying marriage, wondering, “What if I had gotten off that train?”

After watching the sequels, it becomes apparent how fully formed and lived-in these characters were in the beginning — every story they tell in “Sunrise” rings true to the characters we’ve come to know over the years, and Jesse even channels time travel during a pivotal moment in “Before Midnight.” Although she bombards Jesse with them in “Before Midnight,” Celine already mastered the trap-question in the first installment (“What do you think would bother you about me years from now?”).

Some might argue that the boiling point of “Before Midnight” can be attributed to Jesse and Celine changing dramatically over the course of 18 years. But that assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. The “Before” trilogy doesn’t suggest that it’s the people who change in long-term relationships — it’s their tolerance and ability to detect the other person’s temperament.

By “Midnight,” Jesse and Celine haven’t changed much — they’ve just grown tired. Vienna can only happen once, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing about “Before Sunrise.”

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