(Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 1995)
Hopefully I represent a minority in discovering Richard Linklater’s late-century generation defining meditation on love and time after having seen its equally impacting follow-up Before Sunset. To be fair, coming of age and falling in love with cinema during the aughts, watching Sunset felt like a more pressing matter. Coming to Before Sunrise in retrospect then offers both pros and cons. To visit it with Celine and Jesse’s future spelled out in both Sunset and last year’s Before Midnight allows for an appreciation of the unintentional foreshadowing and irony present in this first chapter of their story. One cannot help but draw comparisons between the argumentative couple disrupting the other passengers on the train to Vienna that opens Sunrise and the ugly conflict that erupts between our protagonists at the close of Midnight. Too, it proves more than a little satisfying to knowingly smirk at Celine’s as yet unproven assertion that she could never tire of her potential partner’s quirks and habits. But, what may have been missed by not meeting Jesse and Celine for the first time on that train I will never know.
This backward view, however, doesn’t diminish any of Sunrise’s charm or importance as the first in this daringly unique filmic trilogy. We meet Jesse, the American tourist, and Celine, the French student, as they meet each other en route to Vienna. Both are on their way home, but this chance encounter proves too intriguing for either to deny. Thus, plans are derailed in favor of spending one night together before a plane takes Jesse back to America. What begins with awkward interchanges between strangers swiftly turns to an evening of unexpected connection and a whole lot of talking. These self-assured twentysomethings ruminate on everything from sex and love to the passing of time and death. There is something undeniably magnetic about these two despite the fact they have to know a little bit about everything. Moments of honesty puncture the ceaseless exchanges of this loquacious pair that belie their youthful arrogance – Celine second-guessing her English, Jesse made uncomfortably jealous by Celine’s childhood crush, Celine’s intense fear of dying. The beauty rests in these scenes of genuine emotion. The youngsters have their whole futures ahead of them with unknown years and experiences to soften their rough edges, which make them undoubtedly human.
As the night gives way to early morning, Jesse and Celine begin to fall in love. To Celine, Jesse is the little boy with beautiful dreams, and to Jesse, Celine is the gorgeous girl concealing an inspiring intelligence. Time together becomes more intimate as they share a gamut of spiritual experiences. Both a wandering palm reader and a street poet speak to the heart of this couple (Celine savors these moments while Jesse mockingly shrugs them off). Neither can, however, shake the growing connection they feel despite their inevitable parting. At one point, they try on adult rationality when faced with the reality of the following morning, but Linklater assures us that we don’t have to wake up from this dream yet. “Our time together is ours,” Celine declares.
When morning comes Jesse and Celine are hardly ready to say goodbye. Standing on the platform at the train station they hurriedly promise to meet again in six months’ time. They embrace and kiss once more before Celine reluctantly boards the train. As a memento of their brief night together, we are shown the places where they laughed, contradicted each other, and made love – only now vacant spaces bathed in daylight. These memories will sustain them through their journeys home, and the smiles that alight on both Jesse and Celine suggest that their time together is not through. Of course, the existence of Sunset and Midnight prove this to be true and obliterate any expectations one might have had leaving the pair at the end of Sunrise. But, this first chapter remains a crucial one. It stands as a poignant portrait of youthful naivety and the encounters that inspire us to dream – even if the outcome is less perfect than we had hoped.