Before Sunrise is a delightful romance journey from Richard Linklater, the same director who brought us the trippy A Scanner Darkly. Before Sunrise differs from that more recent psychedelic rotoscoped foray yet the links between visuals and themes remain distinct. Whereas A Scanner Darkly tells the decent to drug addiction with the vibrancy and otherworldliness one undergoes during induced euphoria, Before Sunrise is a moving portrait of romance framed in the muted milieu of reality—reality as the audience sees and experiences it.
One of the best things about watching a film is its ability to transport us and suspend reality. Before Sunrise is as closest to reality as possible and it certainly succeeds. The film tells the story of Jessie and Céline, two strangers sharing a train from Budapest who decided to explore the possibilities of their connection in a spontaneous decision to get off in Vienna. There is no huge action in this film nor does it have any elements of thrill, save for the anticipation of how their romance would end or continue. The story unfolds in the same way as the characters reveal themselves: through dialogue.
The entire film is carried by Jessie’s and Céline’s conversation. Their banter holds them together as they seek themselves from one another through an excursion toward discovery. At one point an idea of split soul is brought up. Whether this is homage to the myth of Aristophanes about man’s yearning to find his other half throughout his life, a concept brilliantly encapsulated by yet another film called Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it is a welcome hint to the movie’s central theme of finding fulfillment in another person amidst our mundane and unembellished actuality. This discovery is further emphasized with their pretend albeit endearing phone call where they reveal intimate sentiments of one another.
The minimalist take on a romantic story works well for Before Sunrise for it prevents the attention of the audience from wandering off. It is a story of two people trying out love punctuated by witty tête-à-tête and adorned with mitigated, self-restrained passion. It separates itself from the maudlin and overwrought tear-jerkers or the dull and oft humorless romantic comedies. Nor is it a movie with too much gravitas. Before Sunrise is narratively unassuming; everything can be conjectured the moment their minds met at the buffet car. Yet while sexual tension is evident, the film handles it expertly: foreplay that culminated in implicit lovemaking.
It is crucial to underline the importance of Jessie and Céline for they are the drivers of this film. We go wherever they go. We meet whoever they meet. We accept whatever they share. Everything else is temporary and transitory. The few people they meet are unimportant. The film breaks away from any superfluous scene by introducing these side elements without extensively exploring them; doing so would not add anything substantial. They are just there to make Vienna as real as the main leads are to us. They are the tiny cogs that propel the story and leaving them out would not put a dent to the overall storytelling. Other romance films want in focus and Before Sunrise triumphs in it. Such focus is even visually noticeable in several scenes where the camera lingers on a composition with just the two of them, a style, although less used in Before Sunrise, reminiscent of Haneke and Ozu.
Finally, it is worth noting the use of the word “transitory” because it encapsulates the entire film. Before it ended, the film revisited the places Jessie and Céline went to like a friend sending postcards to another. The train is symbolic of the temporary nature of their romance. Whether their romance endures is moot. The certainty is that everything we experience, even love, is ephemeral at some point. The question is whether we allow it to linger or to be tucked away in the deep recesses of our subconscious unlike Jessie and Céline who outlined their feelings for each other thus escaping the temporal barrier of one night and cherishing their intimacies before the sun rose.