Film Review: Before Sunrise

I heard Karen Obispo and Russell Gutierrez’s rave reviews of the 1995 film ‘Before Sunrise’ by Richard Linklater. This was a time when I was an active member of Singles for Christ in Hong Kong, and conversations about good films to watch were part of our fellowship conversations. This blog post is more of a film appreciation than a film review.

After hit-and-miss attempts at obtaining bootleg DVDs in Mong Kok, I finally took the legitimate route and bought a copy of the movie in an expensive but genuine DVD version from HMV, the now-defunct shop for movies and music in an era when CDs were widely available. Spotify was still in its infancy, and streaming music is still a few years away. In its fancy prime location in Central, HMV boasted as one of the long-term fixtures in the area, alongside Marks & Spencer, in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong.

So, after all errands were completed on a Saturday morning, it was time to see the movie. And boy, did it make an impression on me.

“Before Sunrise” is a cinematic gem that captivated my attention with its simplicity. It isn’t filled with action scenes, but the conversation between the two protagonists became an auditory feast for attentive viewers.

It offered a profound exploration of personal connection, long before our infatuation with our smartphones and before social media memes diluted our idea of humour.

The film follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American tourist, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student, as they meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna and decide to spend one lovely night together exploring the city.

When you travel alone, you become more inclined to reach out to fellow travellers instead of being fixated on your travel buddy. From my random thoughts, I remember accidentally befriending a girl and pretending to be her companion to keep her stalker at bay as we arrived in Davao via Super Ferry from my failed job interview in Manila. And on a Rural Transit bus from Cagayan de Oro to Davao, I became acquainted with Donabelle, a pharmacy student from Southwestern University who lives in Bukidnon. Those were short encounters, just like Jesse and Celine, but an embodiment of the expression that a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.

Speaking of strangers, the film’s greatness lies in capturing the essence of a transient, ephemeral relationship between two individuals. The dialogue is the heart of “Before Sunrise,” and Hawke and Delpy deliver remarkable performances, seamlessly portraying the nuances of genuine conversation and the vulnerability that comes with opening up to a stranger.

How do you start up a conversation with a stranger you don’t know, let alone make that stranger abandon her plans to stick around and spend more time together?

I am not good at this, but I think a simple hello, a welcoming smile, and a non-intimidating demeanour are vital elements. Linklater’s personal experience of meeting a young woman at a toy shop inspired the movie, and Jesse must have worn his hat while composing his lines.

“Before Sunrise” explores the complexity of love, life, and the ephemeral nature of time. The film tackles significant concerns about fate, choices, and the consequences of fleeting meetings in one’s life. The absence of a traditional Hollywood finale adds realism, leaving the audience with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia.

As they decide to get off at Westbahnhof and take a walk in the heart of Vienna, their animated conversation criss-crosses multiple themes that are thought-provoking and also relatable to everyone.

Life and death

Jesse and Celine talk about what happens after we die and the concept of reincarnation, as well as their personal opinions and observations on life. When Jesse describes the first time his mother told him about death and he saw his dead great-grandmother standing in the sky, he discusses the ambiguity of death. CĂ©line responds that she is scared of death and that it is her fear of death that has prompted her to board the train instead of flying.

Love and relationships

When Celine asks Jesse if he knows anyone who is in a happy relationship, Jesse retorts yes he does, but thinks those couples lie to each other. Celine agreed, opening up a sad fate her grandmother confessed to her.

“My grandmother was married to this man, and I always thought she had a very simple, uncomplicated love life. But she just confessed to me that she spent her whole life dreaming about another man she was always in love with. She just accepted her fate. It’s so sad.”

Travel and exploration

Jesse and Celine talk about the joy of travelling and how it allows people to escape their ordinary lives, experiencing the world with fresh eyes. In one scene, Jesse persuades Celine to get off the train with him by mentioning how she is bored with her routine and how his offer of exploring Vienna is “crazy, wonderful, irresponsible.” Apparently, she concurs as she steps off the train. This emphasises how, in this context, travel represents breaking free and embracing the unknown.

The importance of time and present moment

Jesse is being pragmatic about the brevity of life and emphasising the fleeting nature of time and the importance of cherishing the present moment, especially when experiencing meaningful connections, just like he did with Celine.

“It’s about living in the present, man. Every minute you spend thinking about the past or the future is lost,” Jesse said.

Philosophy and beliefs

Celine and Jesse argue about whether life is predetermined or whether people have influence over their destiny. Jesse expresses his scepticism, but Celine takes a more fatalistic stance. During a scene with a palm reader, both shared opposing views on the matter.

Jesse: “You know, sometimes I think everything’s already decided. Every move we make has already been made before.”
Celine: “No, I don’t believe that. I think we have choices. Maybe not big ones, but enough to make a difference.”

The decision by Linklater to develop the narrative in real time lends a sense of reality to the picture, letting the viewer feel like mute bystanders on this chance voyage. Vienna, with its beautiful ambience, becomes a character in its own right, offering a picturesque backdrop to Jesse and Celine’s blossoming relationship. As it turned out, the film would become the first of a trilogy about these two main characters, with Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) released in subsequent decades.

My wife reenacting the scene across Danube River.

While the conversation lasted less than 24 hours, it was sprinkled with intimate moments and showcased the beauty of Vienna beyond its stunning surroundings. The tale revolves around conversations in the train, the cab, the bar, the roadside, and a green field filled with stars on a summer night; therefore, it is readily classified as a low-budget film. Those who pay attention to the dialogue rather than the number of scenes won’t notice the passage of time. The movie would conclude even before Julie reaches Paris or Ethan boards the flight out of Vienna.

This movie also inspired me to make Vienna the first European city to visit.

In conclusion, “Before Sunrise” is a cinematic masterpiece that stands the test of time. Its exploration of the beauty found in brief connections and the poignant acknowledgement of life’s transience make it a timeless classic. Richard Linklater’s direction, coupled with the exceptional performances of Hawke and Delpy, creates an unforgettable experience that lingers in the hearts of viewers long after the credits roll. It’s a celebration of the power of human connection and a reminder of the profound moments that shape our lives.

It’s been a long time since I had a long, meaningful conversation over a cup of coffee, or maybe on a walk. I can’t wait for the next one.

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  1. Hello REM! Nice blog.
    Somebody suggested that I watch that movie & after reading your blog, maybe like 90% from a mere 10% probability, I will watch it.
    Don't worry, Im sure there's definitely more than just a handful of movies "na may laman". But the entertainment, specifically the movie industry i believe is at it's low right now. Evidence? Look at all the comic-to-movie we have been getting lately? And us good people complaining about it. ;o)


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