The One That Got Away

The continuing adventures of Jesse and Celine…
by Philip Matthews

Before Sunrise is the story of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train near Vienna one afternoon in the summer of 1994, but they aren’t the first couple we see in the film. Before they even meet, an uptight middle-aged couple argue in German and one of them storms off – given the time and the place and the intensity of the argument, they could have stepped straight out of a Michael Haneke film. It’s at this point that Jesse and Celine put down their books and start talking (she’s reading Bataille and he’s reading Klaus Kinski’s memoir, All I Need is Love). Nearly 20 years later, with the imminent release of the third film in the series, Before Midnight, they are still talking.

The point about the German couple is that there are several times in Before Sunrise when we and they get to consider alternatives and possibilities. It all hangs on future could-have-beens and present-day could-bes. When Jesse persuades Celine to step off the train as it reaches Vienna, and to spend the night wandering around the city with him, before he flies back to the States and she goes on to Paris, his pitch goes like this: ‘‘Jump ahead 10, 20 years and you’re married, only your marriage doesn’t have the same energy it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you met in your life and what might have happened. I’m one of those guys. Think of this as time travel to find out what you’re missing out on.’’

Watching Before Sunrise again is a kind of time travel for us now, too. There is a belief that so much possibility lies ahead of them – there is no such thing as a missed opportunity when you’re aged 23. Life is abundant. There will always be other chances. At this point, they are innocent and his pitch doesn’t seem sleazy or even sexualised. There is also the time travel that shows us what the world looked like in 1994, which doesn’t seem like so long ago, but it was pre-Internet and pre-mobile phone, and thus an utterly different place. There was only physical or actual space, no virtual social space. They didn’t even swap phone numbers in the morning. These days, they would be friends on Facebook. It was also time travel for writer/director Richard Linklater, who both re-experienced and extended an actual event from a few years earlier, when he met a woman in Philadelphia while travelling and spent an evening walking around with her. They exchanged numbers and talked a bit and then, whatever happened? The third film, Before Midnight, is dedicated to her: Amy Lehrhaupt.

Linklater didn’t know this until years later, but Lehrhaupt died in 1994, weeks before the first film was shot. With that news in mind, it seems poignant that the film is sometimes death-haunted: Celine shows Jesse the grave of a 13-year-old girl that she once thought of as a version of herself; later, she tells Jesse that she feels like an old woman looking back on her life. As morning arrives, they both start to feel mortal, aware that their time together is coming to an end. Jesse quotes lines from Auden’s poem ‘‘As I Walked Out One Evening’’ in an approximation of the voice of Dylan Thomas (‘‘You cannot conquer time …’’). The night together has been their shared dream, a moment out from the ordinary flow of normal life. ‘‘We’re back in real time,’’ Jesse says, as it draws to an end.

As a romantic drama in an exotic locale – and there is some distracting Viennese tourist stuff going on (fortune tellers and violinists, trams and the Third Man ferris wheel) – Before Sunrise may have seemed more conventional than the two Linklater films that preceded it, especially Slacker but perhaps even the mid-70s time travel of Dazed and Confused. But like those two, it is concerned with time, with recapturing experience and showing how it felt. All three films are set over the same timeframe, starting on an afternoon, going overnight and ending in the morning.

Literature fans might also make something of the small detail that Before Sunrise is set on June 16 – James Joyce’s Bloomsday. When Jesse tells Celine about his idea for a TV programme that shows ‘‘the poetry of day to day life’’, he isn’t just anticipating reality TV, he’s also looking ahead six years to the Andre Bazin scene in Waking Life, which is still Linklater’s furthest-out time experiment. For Bazin, cinema was photography with time added – the longer the takes, the closer you are to a record of reality. Before Sunrise doesn’t always have the courage of that Bazinian conviction – early on, especially, you notice a depressing reliance on the classic shot/reverse shot, but once Jesse and Celine get off the train and start walking, the takes get longer and freer and the performances come to seem more naturalistic. This is another way in which 1994 was a long time ago: these days, a film like Before Sunrise would be shot in a much looser, documentary-like style.

Everyone remembers how it ended: they separate at the train station and agree to meet at the same spot in six months. Whether you thought they did or didn’t was like one of those magazine personality tests to diagnose if you are cynical or romantic. That seemed like the best place to leave it. In the meantime, Waking Life included a scene that was not so much a Before Sunrise sequel as another moment out of time, with Jesse and Celine in bed, still talking. Of course it was nice to get some sense of how they were, even if they were just dreamed up by Wiley Wiggins or Linklater himself or perhaps all of us in our collective hallucination in 50AD (it’s a long story and it involves Philip K Dick).

The real sequel came three years later, as Before Sunset (2004). Whoever it was who said that all fiction films are partly documentaries about actors could have had this in mind. The first thing you notice – it’s unavoidable, really – is how Ethan Hawke aged across less than a decade. He looks thin, haggard, less than healthy. The premise is that Jesse has written a novel about that night in Vienna, titled This Time. He is launching it at the famous Shakespeare and Co bookstore in Paris, where he explains to a small crowd of literate French reporters his theory that ‘‘time is a lie’’ and that he would like to set his next novel within the duration of a pop song. And as Before Sunset goes on, the time experiments become more rigorous. It unfolds in something very close to real time.

But I can’t have been the only fan of Before Sunrise who felt that a sequel was a bad idea, undermining the perfection – in conceptual terms as much as the execution – of the first film. I found myself resisting it even as I watched it, responding with the nervousness and anxiety that you might have expected from one of the protagonists and not just another audience member. What was the reality of this thing we were watching? The film crossed over with the actors’ lives – by 2004, Hawke had published two novels and his first marriage was on the rocks — and it was clear that Hawke and Delpy were not just writing their characters into life, they were blurring the lines. It seemed a complex experience, to take in their rapport, both as actors and characters, their various back stories, and to consider how their meeting stirred deep and conflicting feelings in them as well as us. Or maybe that was just me.

On a second viewing, years later, it ran differently. Both films could be useful ways of testing your attitudes and expectations at various points in life. If you are roughly the same age as Jesse and Celine, you will have laughed with grim recognition at Jesse’s description of married life with a young child in Before Sunset: ‘‘I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.’’ And you will probably look back on the first film with an unstable mix of fondness, nostalgia and dread.

Before Sunset is inevitably more mature, going deeper into individual unhappiness. It is less innocent, more candid, less romantic, further from shared fantasy, more difficult – more like life. Could ordinary life be lived at the romantic pitch of the first film or would it be too intense? (Again, that arguing couple were a warning.) What is true communication? Would it have been better if Jesse had never pitched his night of “time travel” in Vienna? Is it better not to know what you are missing out on? These are here-and-now questions rather than the more abstract philosophical areas of Before Sunrise – and, going deeper still, Waking Life.

One last thing. Rewatching the first two Before films as a double bill – and left curious, even desperate, to see what happens in Before Midnight – I also became aware of the importance of the female perspective. The films were co-created by Kim Krizan, with dialogue worked on by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, but the choice of songs on the soundtrack – if you take songs as an alternate authorial perspective in a film – was also female. In the first film, Celine finds an album by unknown folkie Kath Bloom in a Vienna record store and we hear her song, ‘‘Come Here’’. It sounds polite, melancholy, naive, young — meaning that it fits the mood perfectly. In the second film, Celine is writing and singing songs herself, and they don’t sound a million miles away from what Kath Bloom was doing, while also talking about and playing some Nina Simone. To me, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset seem like the rare romantic dramas that are neither entirely or largely male, nor entirely or largely female.

One other last thing. British editor turned writer/director Andrew Haigh also did the brief encounter thing very well in his film Weekend (2011), which puts Russell and Glen together over a few days in Nottingham, tracking short-lived romance from nightclub meeting to inevitable railway station. Strongly acted by Tom Cullen and Chris New, it possibly has a greater sense of reality and urgency than Before Sunrise – and, thus, a greater sense of anguish.

Before Midnight opens in New Zealand cinemas on July 4. You can read more about Amy Lehrhaupt and her influence on Before Sunrise in this Slate story.

This story at Slant is good on the process of making the films but watch out for third-film spoilers. Essentially, there is no improv. Rather, Hawke and Delpy rehearse the hell out of their script, and then shoot in real locations (‘‘It’s basically a play in the wild’’).