In 1989 writer/director Richard Linklater met a woman in Philadelphia and they walked around the city together, chatting deep into the night. Art imitated life in Before Sunrise, a film about Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train and embark on a spontaneous 24-hour date in Vienna, where they’re as much tourists to each other as they are the city.
There’s a moment of Before Sunrise where Jessie and Celine are in a record store listening to a song in silence, and as one looks at the other the other coyly looks away. Its sequel, Before Sunset (set and filmed nine years later) takes this moment and plays out suspense for the entire 80 minutes of the film.
Jessie has written a book based on the date in Vienna and is at the end of a book tour in Paris when he spots Celine in the crowd. The film plays out in real time as the pair wander around Paris, revealing details about the nine years that have passed, knowing that they only have a short while until Jessie has to make his way to the airport.
Co-written with Hawke and Delpy based on a story Linklater created with Kim Krizan, the film plays out in a regular three act structure, but rather than being motivated by actions, the story is motivated by the emotions of the characters. The emotional rhythm lets Jessie and Celine play each other’s antagonists and the result is that every little human moment feels that much more dramatic.
“Show don’t tell” is a common phrase amongst storytelling gurus but Before Sunsetflips this advice by “telling and showing.” Each action and line of dialogue (and there’s a lot) says something different about the dramatic question in play: will Jessie and Celine get together?
Hawke said that he had to “re-learn how to talk on film” for this picture and the statement is far from pretentious. The dialogue has a natural flow and with each beat, the mood shifts. The way the actors pronounce their words says volumes about their feelings and sells you on their motivations. The word “fuck” is used three times in the film and each utterance says something different.
But what makes this poetic slice of life more than a filmed piece of theatre? It’s the mise-en-scène, elevated with simplistic shots and emotive cutting, that allows Celine’s hometown to act as a backdrop to the characters’ emotions. Each location builds upon the last to add weight to the dramatic question.
In the lead up to the final location, the characters walk up a flight of stairs in silence. The rhythm of the diegetic footsteps hitting the floor echoes the characters’ nervous heartbeats and we feel as though we are climbing along the edge of a mountain with them. In the moments that follow, we’re finally shown more than we can ever be told, and feel we know our characters more than any camera can dictate. We feel their souls like a piece of music.
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