I’ve long thought of this movie as a thinking man’s romance, without necessarily articulating that opinion. The category sat in opposition to the “chick flick” — a derogatory term I consciously reject that nevertheless sneaks into my perception sometimes. Before Sunrise is a movie that accesses its emotions by way of its ideas. It’s almost an essay film on the subjects of love, gender, and time. I’ve always loved the dialogue in this film, the interplay of ideas and their evocations. When I first saw it, I was a freshman in college. I’m not quite as arrogant now as I was then. The movie hasn’t changed. The ideas are still there, and still great. But I can see the balance now. This is a movie about listening as well as talking. Far more than a debate on the nature of love, this is the story of two people who experience it.
They only have one day together. Jesse has to catch a flight back home to America the next morning, and Celine is heading home to Paris. They meet on a train to Vienna. After some basic chitchat, Jesse shares an idea he had while riding around the European countryside: a 24-hour TV show that captures the daily routines of people in cities around the world. A simple but rigorous documentary on what Celine correctly pegs as “boring” and “mundane” activities — a Richard Linklater idea if I’ve ever heard one. It’s almost a George Costanza idea, in fact, but it trades the Seinfeld character’s contempt for genuine curiosity. It also reminds me of my own childhood, when I sometimes envisioned my family life as a 24-hour broadcast to some unknowable audience. Jesse’s idea is just a mental curlicue compared to what’s coming, but it sets the stage. Before Sunrise takes place over roughly twenty-four hours in a single city, and its characters behave more or less like ordinary people, never jumping through the hoops of a plot.
Well, there’s one hoop. Celine has to agree to join Jesse in Vienna for the day, and it won’t be because she wants to hear more about the TV show. What makes her accept the invitation of a total stranger? Julie Delpy, as Celine, answers this question with her ability to listen. Listening is a skill that’s central to great acting but isn’t always singled out for praise. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse gets to share the great story about seeing his dead grandmother through the spray of a garden hose, but the warmth in Delpy’s face conveys her emotional investment in this man’s life and beliefs better than words ever could. Jesse is an unusually passionate and expressive young man, but the important thing is that Celine finds him trustworthy. He finally convinces her by proposing another mental time experiment: imagining herself in the future looking back on this day, wishing she had gotten off the train just so she could know for certain that this young man wasn’t her soul mate after all. It’s a disarming proposal. He’s not suggesting that they belong together, but that they don’t. All he’s offering is peace of mind. She enjoys this crazy idea, too, and wants to hear more.
Thankfully, though, she does a lot more than just listen. The back-and-forth in this movie is crucial. Later, she’ll ascribe a competitive nature to Jesse’s behavior on the train, an attitude of “getting the girl.” When he “has” her, he occasionally betrays a paternalistic attitude, “protecting” her from scam artists (a fortune teller, a street poet) in a city he’s never been to before, but she has. As the evening wears on, the crux of the matter reveals itself. His hope for his own life is to accomplish something valuable or important. He believes this will be more meaningful to him (again, in the future) than whether or not he’s a good husband or father. This is the young George Bailey’s dream, and, let’s face it, it’s pretty self-absorbed — the kind of self-absorption that morphs right into self-loathing. Jesse doesn’t think love can last because we eventually know our partners so well that they can never surprise us again. Celine counters this with her belief that knowing what her partner is going to say in a given situation is what love is all about. It means the gulf between two souls has been crossed. What accomplishment can compare to that?
Of course, they’ve been shooting flares across the gulf at each other this whole time. There’s an essential scene in a restaurant booth where the two of them engage in a little role-playing. Celine asks Jesse to pretend to be one of her friends from home in an imaginary phone conversation, then she does the same for him. In this way, they each reveal their own doubts and relieve the doubts of the other. Celine has her own competitive side, a desire to fight against the systems of the older generation so she can help make the world a better place. Jesse, despite his protests that love is a sham and marriage a mistake, is clearly a romantic at heart, longing for the same kind of connection as Celine. On two different occasions, Lee Daniel’s camera looks down at the two characters’ feet walking in the same direction before it tilts up to watch them converse. These are two vividly drawn individuals, but what’s really amazing is that they each respond with an open heart to whatever the other one is saying. They’re going the same way.
Then the plot rears its head again. As night falls, they acknowledge that they might never see each other again. This would be the natural course of events for people living on two separate continents. At first, they don’t think that a single day, no matter how invigorating and fun, should be enough to change that. They refuse to waste any time thinking through the practical issues, one way or another. But this night has been special, and they know they’ll remember it for a long time. I, too, have had at least one night like that in my life. The next morning, they throw out a last-minute lifeline, promising to meet again in the same place six months later. From there, who knows? Nothing is guaranteed. But they had one day together: two young people, the stardust inside them still smoldering, briefly finding a way into each other’s dreams.