It’s been a while since I’ve written an Inspirations post, but after a Twitter conversation last week I was reminded of an idea that has been drifting around at the back of my mind for a while. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are two of my favourite films, and with a third instalment, Before Midnight, due for release in the summer this seems the perfect time to revisit them.
Released in 1995, Before Sunrise tells the story of a young couple who meet on a train whilst travelling in Europe. American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has spent the previous couple of weeks exploring the continent by train and is about to fly home when he meets the enigmatic Céline (Julie Delpy), who is returning to Paris after visiting her grandmother in Eastern Europe. They strike up a conversation and Jesse persuades Céline to leave the train with him in Vienna so that they can continue getting to know each other, before he catches his flight home the next morning.
They spend the night wandering the city streets, debating life, love, the universe and everything in between.
A sequel, Before Sunset, followed in 2004. *Warning – plot spoilers coming up*
Few films manage to capture the essence and desire of early adulthood. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline are in their early twenties and still discovering their own identities. They are hopeful for the future and have that youthful sense of infinite time being available to them.
Jesse initially uses this idea to entice Céline to leave the train with him, saying: “…jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life, and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. So think of this as time travel, from then, to now, uh, to find out what you’re missing out on.”
During their night in Vienna, they engage in an intense and romantic conversation about their beliefs, hopes and desires. As their time together is finite, the emotion of the evening is magnified and their encounter develops in directions it probably would never otherwise have gone.
The repercussions of that meeting can still be felt years later. At the end of Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline agree to an all or nothing approach to their relationship. They plan to meet in Vienna six months on, but don’t exchange contact information, fearing long-distance communication will cause their relationship to fizzle out.
Before Sunset finds them nine years later, as Jesse, now a writer, is in Paris promoting his debut novel, which he based on his one night with Céline. She arrives at the book signing and they quickly resume their conversation, just as intimate and intellectual as it was nine years earlier.
It turns out that they never met again after their initial encounter in Vienna, yet both have struggled to move on with their lives, feeling that they have been unable to recapture the magic of the evening they shared. Jesse admits that by writing about that night, he was hoping to find Céline once more.
In both films, the focus is squarely on the characters of Jesse and Céline; other characters appear fleetingly, almost as punctuation to their conversation.
Linklater’s decision to revisit the characters of Jesse and Céline nine years on is what makes Before Sunset so poignant. The dialogue parallels the first film, but the subtle differences are found in the characters themselves. Jesse’s early slacker intellectual spirit has been channelled into creativity and a career as a writer. Céline’s academic energies and social conscience have led her first to a career in government, then as an activist for an international charity.
Thus their debates range from the personal to the global; despite the challenges and disappointments they have faced, at their core both are still idealists. Yet the tragedy is that they both feel in some way that they have missed out, that life has passed them by.
It will be fascinating to see how Jesse and Céline’s perspective on life has changed in Before Midnight, now that they have gone from their twenties and thirties to their forties. This idea of personal evolution makes the films so engaging and relatable. Revisiting them now in my late twenties, I can better understand some of Jesse and Céline’s angst about the loss of their youthful identities and reinventing themselves as they enter different stages of their lives.
One of my favourite moments in Before Sunrise sees Jesse and Céline encounter a poet by the river, who instead of begging for change, will write them a poem featuring a word of their choice. David Jewell’s piece was written specifically for the film and describes the mood of the story perfectly.
Delusion Angel, by David Jewell
Oh, baby with your pretty face
Drop a tear in my wineglass
Look at those big eyes
See what you mean to me
Sweet cakes and milkshakes
I am a delusion angel
I am a fantasy parade
I want you to know what I think
Don’t want you to guess anymore
You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we’re going
Lodged in life
Like two branches in a river
Caught in the current
I’ll carry you. You’ll carry me
That’s how it could be
Don’t you know me?
Don’t you know me by now?