Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert
Plot: Two strangers meet on a train and end up spending a night on the streets of Vienna, but will their relationship last beyond just a chance meeting?
As far as cinema is concerned, the city of Vienna is perhaps most famous for Orson Welles’ dark, gloomy and brooding 1949 film The Third Man, in which Harry Lime lurked among the cloaked alleyways and spouted that most famous monologue on Switzerland’s lack of creativity through being traditionally neutral. So it’s refreshing to be able to see this glorious medieval place in the daytime, set as the backdrop to a charming romantic film that doesn’t heavily rely on comedy or drama for its kicks – just a good old-fashioned script full of wit and charm.
Two people in their twenties, a young American called Jesse (Hawke) and a French woman named Céline (Delpy), meet on a train going from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse is going to fly back to America from Vienna, while Céline intends to continue back to her home city Paris after visiting her grandmother. They strike up a conversation and reveal one another’s situations to each other and quickly become enamoured. When the train reaches Vienna, Jesse suggests to Céline that she joins him for a walk around the city until the following morning, as he doesn’t have enough money for a hotel. He convinces her by saying that, when she is married to someone else in 10 or 20 years’ time, she might regret not taking more opportunities when she was free and single.
After wandering around some of the landmarks for a few hours, Jesse and Céline eventually kiss at the top of the Wiener Riesenrad at sunset and start to feel a genuine connection. Continuing to roam the cobbled streets, they begin to open up much more to one another and have conversations which include love, religion, life and their views of the places in Vienna that they visit. Jesse and Céline find common ground when he tells her that he was visiting his now-ex girlfriend in Madrid and she reveals that her last boyfriend broke up with her six months previously because she apparently loved him too much. As the sun rises the next morning, the two must decide whether this will be the last time they ever see each other again.
Watching a film about two people walking around a city for over an hour and a half might seem like a tedious idea, but Before Sunrise has the perfect company, a magnificent setting and more importantly, a screenplay that feels very natural yet entertaining at the same time. The all-important characterisation is the key in a film such as this. The two protagonists must be engaging and believable, vulnerable at times, yet ultimately convincing when telling their back stories and revealing how the decisions they’ve made in their lives has led them to be on this particular train at this moment in time. Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan (with some uncredited help from both Hawke and Delpy), have fashioned a terrific script which never lets up – even when there are a few reflective scenes including one in a graveyard, there is still a purpose. By making each character think deeply about their own mortality although not in a morbid way, it is clearly designed to be in the context of the path which their lives must take, either with or without one another. Vienna itself is a fantastic place for such a story to unfold – you might argue that this is in fact a tourist advert, but there are few places that could be a more fitting setting.
The casting of Jesse and Céline has to be spot-on, otherwise we will probably lose interest very quickly – thankfully this is absolutely perfect. Ethan Hawke may be better known for action films than anything else these days, but his portrayal of Jesse is excellent. Being able to be charming yet not sleazy is the real test for a romantic leading man and Hawke hits the mark admirably. The real star here however is French-American actress Julie Delpy who, in her first major English language role, is magnificent as Céline, exuding both a luminous beauty, but also the ability to deliver her lines in a very natural way. It is clear to see how her star quality in both acting and writing has enabled her to make a name for herself through trans-Atlantic films such as 2 Days in Paris and its companion piece, 2 Days in New York. Credit is also due to Richard Linklater’s direction which, with help from Lee Daniel’s cinematography (and also the gorgeous Austrian scenery), is also effortless. There is one notable scene in particular, where Jesse and Céline go into a room to listen to Kath Bloom’s Come Here – there is no dialogue, just the two characters taking it turns to unknowingly look at each other in admiration – this sums up the agonisingly unspoken feelings that run throughout their time in Vienna.
Before Sunrise is a hidden gem of a film – arguably dwarfed by the Titanics and Love Actuallys of this world, but if a CGI-free hour and a half in the company of two fine actors in a beautiful city sounds appealing, then this is most definitely for you. Also be sure to check out the as-good sequel set in Paris, Before Sunset, although Sunrise feels like a much more rounded film even though the finale may leave some slightly unsatisfied.