Before Sunrise and Before Sunset: Laden with Happiness and Tears

Linklater’s two films move us towards a new understanding of the genre of romantic films.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset: Laden with Happiness and Tears
Photo: Columbia Pictures

There are many reasons that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset demand, like Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather Parts I and II, to be addressed as a single unit, but two are predominant. Firstly, doing so allows us to enjoy the invigorating spectacle of the two films’ bold balancing act, as on the one hand there stands the optimism and hopefulness of the (more) conventionally romantic Before Sunrise, while on the other hand we witness the often savage skewering of same in the much bleaker and despairing sequel. Secondly, the two films are more rewarding when consumed as one because we observe the counter-development of these films’ protagonists, as they effectively switch positions and outlooks over the course of the two stories, all the while maintaining the opposites attract magnetism that drives the romantic genre.

Further, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are two films that have a deceptively simple concept masking their depth and grandness of design. What could be more straightforward than placing two attractive, intelligent people together in two gorgeous cultural landmarks, and letting them, to borrow from Hamlet, use their words, words, words to seduce both the audience and each other? And yet, behind this thin façade are two edgy and wise films that I continue to find, a dozen or more viewings down the road, profound in purpose and effect. These two films, which mark director Richard Linklater’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, prove craftily subversive, as the director seduces us with the conventions of a traditional love story, teasing out our expectations, only to undermine them time and again with cynicism and even despair.

Sunrise and Sunset coyly employ, then cleverly attack the romantic delusions that have been passed down through the ages via various popular culture media. Moreover, these films ask us to consider the very nature and purpose of our existence in a fragmentary, superficial and transient universe. Amid some of the most beautiful art and architecture that Europe has to offer, and often accompanied by a soundtrack of history’s most enduring composers (Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Strauss), the two leads, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), search for meaning and permanence in a world that emphasizes disposability. The contrast of the past and its constant glories with the confusion and transience of the modern is surely not accidental. In the context of a world where we are only expected to be as happy as our latest acquisition, we share the experiences of the protagonists, who soak up the atmosphere of cultures that have been built over centuries.

Finally, to wrap up this prolonged introduction, I must come clean with a bit of a confessional aside in order to reveal a deeply personal reason that Linklater’s films have, beyond what I hope to show are some impressive aesthetic appeal, held me in their sway. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset have acted as a strange sort of Greek chorus as I have faced down the challenge of enduring the dissolution of my marriage. Having the two leads in these movies echo my thoughts and reveal my feelings in some of the movies’ most powerful scenes has been both unsettling in a “how did they know that’s how I felt?” way, and comforting in a “so, I’m not the only one who feels this way!” sort of way.

In Before Sunrise, the young twenty-something couple’s conversation is preoccupied with death, transience and the fragility of life. It is both moving and telling that the story that wins Celine over and convinces her to disembark the train and spend the night in Vienna with Jesse revolves around the tale he tells of himself as a child seeing his grandmother’s ghost in the spray of a water hose, a fact that we learn in a conversation that also focuses on reincarnation, the fracturing of the individual spirit in the modern world, and Celine’s 24/7 obsession with her own mortality. In fact, when the couple first meet, she is reading a George Bataille anthology titled Madame Edwarda, Le Mort (The Dead Man.) Further, the young couple visit the Friedhof der Namenlosen, a graveyard filled with Viennese suicide and plague victims, many of them resting for eternity in the sort of anonymity that had Thomas Gray opining that “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” And near the film’s end, when Jesse quotes from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” he focuses upon the passages that emphasize the inevitability of decline and death (“Time will have its Fancy/To-morrow or To-day”).

All the while, the couple search for evidence of things that can persist. Staying awake in defiance of that harbinger of mortality—the night—hoping to cheat the death of each day by stealing the time that they shouldn’t even be having together, their conversations inevitably swing back to all the proofs that they see around them of the ephemeral, particularly in the realm of human relationships, where nothing sticks, where disintegration and collapse seem to be the norm. It is not merely in conversation, of course, that they hope to cheat death, but also in their burgeoning relationship. It is standard operating procedure in the romance genre to escape mortality through timeless love. In a daring bit of teasery, Linklater takes this expectation and dangles the hope for a happily ever after ending for the duration of both films.

Immersed in centuries-old art and architecture, the young couple in Before Sunrise search for meaning and clarity in their conversations, hoping that the connection they are forging will give them something to cling to in this potential shipwreck of life. Yet it is only when we revisit the couple nine years later in Before Sunset that it is clear these lessons have been internalized. The Celine and Jesse of this film are so young and unseasoned that they don’t realize just how special this connection and their time together is, and it is only after nine years of struggle that they are able to put what they had together in Vienna into its proper perspective. The magnitude and rarity of their Viennese Brief Encounter is only evident through the perspective that the years provide. Also, on the most practical level, Sunset must be seen as a completion of the previous film insofar as the latter film picks up where Sunrise left off. Furthermore, the second film provides high relief for the first, as Sunset re-imagines the themes, moods and conversations of Sunrise from a new vantage point nine years hence. Indeed, Sunrise acts much like Sir Walter Raleigh’s Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, a determinedly sceptical poetic response to The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Christopher Marlowe’s self-consciously ironic romantic paean to pastoral idylls. The dialectical tension between the styles and outlooks of these two films serves to enhance our appreciation of their depth and significance. Like The Godfather Parts I and II, these two films are fulfilling when taken as parts of a whole, rather than as separate entities, and viewing the films in a single sitting is a much more rewarding and complete experience of the films.

Before Sunrise appeared on the scene relatively early in the career of director Richard Linklater, and in it he seems content to let his protagonists’ words and the beauty of the Viennese cityscape do most of the talking for him. While Robin Wood’s seminal essay “Rethinking Romantic Love: Before Sunrise” offers a spirited defense of a deeper reading of the film’s cinematic qualities, using one scene in particular (the imaginary phone calls), to point out how sophisticated Linklater’s visual instincts are, the reality is that Before Sunrise consists of a largely static camera, with characters delivering the dialogue in a series of standard two shots, while occasionally breaking the camera away long enough to linger lovingly on the gorgeousness that is Vienna.

However, by the time he filmed Before Sunset, Linklater seems to have developed a little more cinematic ambition. The fluid camerawork in Sunset distinguishes the film from its more static predecessor, as Linklater glides through the streets of Paris, rarely resting his shots for more than a second or two on the beauty that surrounds his protagonists, delivering the city sidelong glances instead, as the couple, reflecting the increased speed with which time is passing them by, roam the Parisian streets and waterways. The camera seems to recognize that this couple does not have the same luxury of time that they did nine years previous, as even the film’s length (80 minutes vs. the 105 minutes of Sunrise) places the characters in the context of even further temporal urgency. Furthermore, the anxiety and restlessness that informs their attitudes and dominates their conversation is well-matched by the film’s incessant movement. It is a classic case of the film’s style informing and strengthening its content.

And speaking of time, the years that have passed between the two films have not been kind to our heroes. In Before Sunrise, Celine believes in magic, embraces reincarnation, accepts fortune-telling and is enchanted by the words of the street corner poet. In the second film, the bloom is off the rose, as one life appears to be plenty enough for her now. The intervening years seem to have been particularly hard on her, as Celine has developed a hardened, cynical shell that Jesse finds difficult to crack. What was flippancy in Sunrise—her repeated references to how men are lucky that women don’t devour them after sex, the way some insects do—has become bleak pessimism in Sunset. She has seen how the world functions, and even though she appears to be committed through her work to make the world a better place, she is not hopeful of its future. For every optimistic note that Jesse tries to strike, Celine finds a discordant one. Her work for environmental causes appears to have developed not out of humanitarian optimism, but rather a finger-in-the-dike pessimism, the blame for which, it eventually emerges, is a series of failed relationships, the fault for which she finally lays at Jesse’s feet. These failures pointedly remind Celine of what a profound and unique experience their night in Vienna was, in much the same way that Before Sunrise reminds us of the creative failure that is the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies. Just as traditional rom-coms encourage an almost delusional level of romantic optimism in their devotees, so too has Celine’s Viennese encounter raised her expectations so high, that her feelings of betrayal by her experiences in the years since have been all the greater.

When we first see Jesse in Before Sunrise, he is brash and open, but also freshly wounded by love. Despite winning Celine over with the story of his grandmother’s ghost, the younger Jesse is sceptical to the point of cynicism at times, blithely dismissing the inexplicable or the uncertain. However, in Before Sunset Jesse appears, in contrast to Celine, happy enough, married with a child and a modestly successful novel under his belt. There is something more upward-looking in the Jesse of Before Sunset. For example, while he has an irritating habit in Sunrise of contesting nearly all of Celine’s thoughts and feelings, in Before Sunset he proves himself far less irritatingly self-involved, and while clearly pessimistic on a personal level, he is much more hopeful in a global sense. It is, one should note, an optimism that grates on Celine. All in all, at first blush, it appears that Jesse has aged well, while Celine has not. But we gradually sense Jesse’s deep-seated sorrow as, when Sunset reaches its climax, we learn that he, for all his apparent hopefulness and optimism in the film’s first hour, is the victim of a profound dissatisfaction. Perhaps it is his earlier heartbreak that has led him to seek the safety of a comfortable relationship, but the consequences to his happiness appear to be devastating, as the Jesse of Before Sunset appears to be on the verge of a fundamental psychic disintegration.

Just as Celine’s romantic bitterness has been provoked by memories of Vienna, Jesse’s impending emotional collapse can be found in the stirring up of old ghosts as well. His lament, as the film nears its close, of the complete lack of passion in his current relationship could be dismissed as the sound of yet another generation settling for a little bit less, but there is something a bit deeper and more fundamentally disturbing happening here. Both Jesse and Celine appear to be on the verge of becoming that German couple squabbling in the train at the beginning of Before Sunrise, and all those middle-aged couples they speak of in Sunrise whose untenable relationships have become a seemingly inevitable tedium of soul-sucking routine (their anecdotes are rife with stories of parents, grandparents, and friends who have betrayed their commitment to one another). And Celine is forced to face up to the poverty of her love life, and admit to feeling that the magic, romanticism and optimism that guided her thoughts nine years previous had misguided and even betrayed her, feeding into lofty expectations that could not possibly be met by a disaffected and disinterested world. The years of pain and disappointment have led the two lovers to swap philosophical outlooks.

The struggle in these films is no less epic than that of a Greek tragedy between forces of free will and fate. Are our young lovers doomed to fall into the same patterns of disappointment and dissatisfaction that have befallen every generation as it nears middle age? Or are they going to find a way to overcome the great weight that the natural, historical and cultural forces—Time as the oppressor in Auden’s poetry; the dissolution of the individual in Seurat’s painting; the resurrection of Notre Dame Cathedral; the endurance of the river Seine; the Prater’s Wheel of Fortune-esque ferris wheel—that surround these characters and constantly remind them of the crushing inevitability of the passage of time, and which seem to conspire to keep us all in their sway?

The final 25 minutes of conversation that winds up Before Sunset are the most deeply affecting moments of the two films. Here, both characters face up to their life’s failures, and seem on the brink of falling into a desperate cynicism. Life has come up so far short of the vaulted expectations that the night in Vienna bred in them. However, rather than the disappointment dissolving into a series of recriminations or a spiral of mutual regret, the film takes a miraculous healing turn at the end, and the characters rise above their ruefulness, and use it as a springboard into hope, guarded as it must remain given all that continues to separate them, including geography and pre-existing relationships. As a result, the final moments in Celine’s apartment are poignant in a way rarely found in more conventional romances.

After spending over three hours watching them connect, and after waiting 9 years to have answered the question on everyone’s lips—“will they or won’t they?”—we have become so attached to this couple that it is quite impressive that Before Sunset is able to deliver a conclusion that is not only wholly befitting to the couple, who have got so much invested in the lives that they’ve built apart from one another, yet who clearly need each other to find that faith in life that appears to have left them, but that is among the most eloquent and evocative in filmdom. The carnal union that caps these films is entirely appropriate given the strictures of the romantic genre, but these moments do not come without raising audience concerns. They may be putting off death, both physical and emotional, just a little bit through sex, but is it a temporary reprieve? Ambiguity remains, as we must wonder what reservations and uncertainties lay in store for them the morning after. Indeed, you would have to be entirely bereft of the proverbial feline curiosity not to wonder where they go from here. Jesse has a son for whom he has sacrificed nearly everything, while Celine’s work gives her life a center and meaning. Are these impediments too great to be scaled? Or will they navigate these global concerns to fine the happiness we all feel they deserve. Linklater leaves this up to the audience, but perhaps we will revisit these characters in the next decade, and learn if the cynics or the romantics have ruled the day.

Linklater’s two films move us towards a new understanding of the genre of romantic films. While conventional romances spend almost all of their energy convincing the audience that, consequences be damned, this particular couple is going to hook up, and it is going to be worth all of our emotional commitment because if they don’t hook up, we’ll, like, die or something. These films get you thinking about the real nuts and bolts of relationship-building, and more importantly ask us to confront the consequences of attempting to build relationships in the real world of those illusory and harmful myths that we perpetuate in our romantic fictions. In Before Sunset, Celine’s bitterness is rooted in the long shadow that the idealistic romantic fantasy of her one night with Jesse cast on the rest of her life. Her failures with men all come back to their inability to hold a candle to the fantasy that she built around this single Viennese night.

Hopefully Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke will give us all a chance to revisit these films in the near future through the kaleidoscopic viewfinder of a third entry in the series. I would love another chance to check in with these characters, to see how their futures have telescoped together (or apart), and more importantly, to weigh whether the films still have as profound a personal effect upon me as they currently do. To wrap things up, I will take one final glimpse of the two films’ cinematic suggestiveness. There are many memorable conversations in both features, but as images go, few can top the shot in Before Sunrise of two trains forging their way through the Viennese night. Both move swiftly and in the same direction, but they do not share the same track. They run along on parallel tracks until, just as the camera parts ways with the trains, their trajectories diverge, one moving up, the other down. As symbols go, this representation of the future of our two leads, and the future of most relationships, is fitting. I will take advantage of the train’s metaphorical aptness as a keen indicator that it is time to step off of the tracks and take my leave.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Dan Jardine

Dan Jardine is a critic and teacher of English and film studies in Victoria, Canada. He is the publisher of Cinemania.

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