Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise is a romance classic, fueled by the intimacy of talk. Like his Slacker and Waking Life (and his eventual sequel, Before Sunset), Before Sunrise takes in wide-ranging discussions on post-modern philosophies of love, sex, gender, time, mortality, fate, faith, and existence. It is also the rare travelogue film which gives a greater impression than a postcard flipbook. In the streets and squares and parks of Vienna, two young people fall for each other. What could be more romantic?
Ethan Hawke plays Jesse, an American lad killing time on trains with a EuroPass. After striking up a conversation with a French grad student named Celine (Julie Delpy), Jesse makes a spontaneous suggestion: she should get off the train and spend the day with him in Vienna. "Think of this as time travel," he enthuses. She'll never have to ask what might have been, one day, had she taken him up on his offer. She accepts, and the two wander through the foreign city, taking in each other and Vienna's sundry distractions.
In a vintage Linklater moment, seemingly improvised, Jesse and Celine encounter two Austrian amateur actors who chat up their play, "about a cow and Indians searching for it." Later, the young couple meeet a palm reader, prompting a discussion which betrays Jesse's restless cynicism and Celine's essential romanticism. A street poet serves as another foil, penning lines which contribute to Linklater's intoxicating technique of commenting on the story within the movie. Likewise, Celine examines a poster for a Seurat exhibition and comments, "I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background...it's like the environments, you know, are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so transitory."
In what is essentially a two-character drama, the two are mostly alone with each other, as they idle through a record shop, a cemetery, various bars, restaurants, and cafes. In a cinematic nod to Carol Reed's The Third Man, Linklater sets Jesse and Celine's first kiss in a skybox of the Great Ferris Wheel at the Prater. Lee Daniel's expert cinematography makes beautiful photography of the city and glamorous close-ups of the actors seem thoroughly natural. In this old place, the young lovers seem out of time, though the clock ticks toward Jesse's scheduled departure on a flight home.
Romance collides, then, with reality, and Linklater and co-screenwriter Kim Krizan (representing for each other the male and female points of view) don't shy from emotional complications and personal illusions. The relationship is somewhat microcosmic; over fourteen hours, the two ignite sparks, talk a blue streak, and break out into small squabbles, eventually facing the questions of sex and separation. Further suggesting that the two can be read as archetypal, Celine remarks that Jesse is an eternal boy, and she an old woman. In Hawke and Delpy, Linklater has two talented and attractive leads with strong predilections for his brand of naturalistic chat.
For all of its intellectual tomfoolery, Linklater's film has heart to spare, and earns its wistful—and hopeful—conclusion. A celebration of spontaneity and the sanctity of communication, Before Sunrise transports a viewer outward in place and time, but also inward to heart and soul.