Patron Pick – Before Sunrise

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Before Sunrise (1995)
Written by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan
Directed by Richard Linklater

I never stepped foot in Europe until 2021, at 40. Although, I did have friends & acquaintances in college who found their way to the small continent, primarily through study abroad programs. So, I don’t know anyone who just floated around Europe for a few months. Yet, director Richard Linklater works his movie magic, and I feel like I know what that would be like after watching Before Sunrise. Beyond the unfamiliar circumstances, there are some universal experiences here. Mainly thinking we know what it means to love a person and coasting on that interpretation or misinterpretation. The pair in this movie lives in limbo, entirely convinced & devoted to this single day of love but also firmly planted in reality, knowing this is a lark, a fun fantasy for a day that cannot last.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is on a train to Vienna. He meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French woman returning to university in Paris after visiting her grandmother. They start a conversation, and Jesse convinces her to get off in Vienna with him, continuing on the train to Paris on her own the following day. Celine doesn’t have anything pressing, so she decides to play along. Jesse doesn’t have enough money for a hotel room, so they wander around the city all night, and at sunrise, they part ways. So what do they do with this window of time? They meet interesting people. They have a bit of food & wine. They kiss. They have sex. They talk a lot. By the end, they make a deal that they will meet in this place again in six months. 

Before Sunrise is a movie I’d only watched once before. Over a decade ago. It was okay then, but I enjoyed it much more this time. I wouldn’t classify Richard Linklater as one of my favorite directors, but when I sit down with his work, I always find myself liking what I watch. I understand if some people don’t enjoy his brand of talky philosophy, but it is a nice break from the cacophonous overstimulation of our other options in theaters now. Sometimes, it’s just lovely to listen to a conversation between two decently intelligent people about big ideas & the human condition.

Should we learn things from the movies we watch? Based on common sense, probably not, but all storytelling has been linked to cultural morals & ethics since the “oral tradition around a campfire” days. One of the purposes of stories is as an act of guidance. It complicates things when the accounts that get made and have the broadest voice are funded by mega-corporations whose agenda is to suck up as much money & resources as possible. Linklater seems like an okay guy, putting down roots in Austin, Texas, and refusing to permanently move to Los Angeles. His work has evolved, but he’s stuck to the same themes & has a reasonably consistent voice. Is he an effete liberal at the end of the day? Probably. Is he another Boomer with a lot of privilege? No doubt. But even neoliberal boomers have some interesting things to say.

(A brief aside, I love when you share something moderate to intensely critical about liberals or Democrats, and one of them becomes upset about it. They often say, “I guess you just love Trump & the Republicans, then.” If I was as open about my views on right-wing ideology, I would get TOS’ed the hell off the internet. Let’s just say I would not give them a slap on the wrist. I’m gentle on the libs because I don’t hold them in such low regard, well, not all of them. Aside ended.)

There’s an illusion that Richard Linklater pulls off so beautifully in his work: the illusion that these things are just happening in front of the camera. Anyone who knows anything about filmmaking, especially the technical elements involved in lighting, setting up shots, scheduling, continuity, etc., knows you cannot make a movie like that, and it turns out as good as Linklater’s work. He can imbue his work with what it feels like to be spontaneous in an authentic way. This is why so many of his films resonate with an almost documentary-like quality, even while being highly stylized.

The way Jesse and Celine meet feels like a natural thing that has happened before. Where we start to break from reality is how fluidly the conversation flows between these two. Moments into their meeting on the train, Celine is talking about how she learned about death from her mother. As a neurodivergent, I am fine jumping into deep topics like that. They are a hell of a lot more interesting than the weather (unless you want to get into climate collapse), sports (unless you want to talk about the exploitation of workers), or your job (see the previous point). But most neurotypicals I’ve met do not like talking about those things early into an acquaintanceship. So, that these two would jump to these lofty concepts is stretching credulity, but we will allow it.

Linklater is not a dumb guy, so he certainly knows what he’s doing here. Before Sunrise is meant to be an evocation of romantic notions & cinematic love. He is with the audience in not believing this is a natural meeting. Instead, the picture is more akin to a stage play. There is a conceit happening that we must briefly acknowledge and then move past. Jesse & Celine are just these specific characters; they are large icons of men & women, of two human beings whose paths cross and toy with the idea of making the encounter last a little bit longer. Jesse literally talks about this on the train, expounding on how our expectations for our lives regarding marriage can pan out as complete failures despite us having the best of intentions. He posits this night wandering around Vienna as a formative experience for them both: “See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.”

Before Sunrise is a fantasy, very much in the same vein as Jacques Demy’s musicals (but without the songs) and even similar to Michelangelo Antonioni’s ruminations on alienation (but not as dour). Despite Linklater’s attempts to lull us into his dream, reality is a heightened thing in movies. When we step back and closely examine Jesse & Celine, we see something we would not like. Jesse is highly immature; he’s an arrogant American narcissist. He’s playing it all so relaxed & casually, but with some age, we can look back and see through all of that. Celine is a cynical idealist; she believes humanity can make things better but is angry at them simultaneously. She’s pretty self-righteous but also has a rich empathy for strangers. 

Do these traits create contradictions? Yup. Have you looked at any person, including yourself, lately? We are walking bundles of contradictions. Take me. I am very serious about my belief in communism. I want every human being on this planet to be guaranteed a home, food, clothing, education, health care, and a comfortable way of life and not owe anything to anyone for it. No one asks to be born, and we have the resources to provide everyone with these things if we just stop letting some of us hoard. 

Yet, I am a profoundly antisocial person. Given my choice, I will choose to lounge around my apartment with Ariana and watch movies or talk. I don’t yearn to be among the great throng of the masses. I don’t find much enjoyment in big social events; I find anxiety. I don’t like a lot of people. Part of becoming a grounded person is coming to understand we are composed of many contradictory things. Some of those things are toxic & need to be jettisoned through therapy or maturation. Other contradictory things must learn to live in symbiosis with each other. You are not a singularity; you are an individual composed of a collective psyche. When we let these things conflict without understanding, the problems begin.

This is why Jesse & Celine construct this one-night fantasy. They are in a bubble where their neuroses and contradictions can sit on the sidelines. The setting, unfamiliar to both parties, helps because they are in a space where they can disassociate. Vienna has as much meaning as they put into it, so it can be whatever they need. It’s not something that can last much longer than a night, which makes Jesse’s short-sighted proposition to meet up in the future so volatile. There is a minimal guarantee that the facade can be rebuilt when it crumbles in the morning light of a Vienna train station. 

I have not watched the two other films in Linklater’s Before Trilogy, but this has renewed my interest in doing that. So you can probably expect to see reviews for them sometime in 2023. I’m interested to see how these characters change when reality kicks in, how that causes them to reflect on this first night together, and what sort of futures they envision for each other now.

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