A+ List: Before Sunrise (and a bit about the sequels)

After seeing Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise in 1995, I described it as My Dinner with Andre, with scenery and sex appeal. Today most people have forgotten the Wallace Shawn/Andre Gregory talkfest, but those who have watched Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking and talking and falling in love happily retain the memory.

How many low-budget romances, without a conventional plot or zany humor, have spawned two sequels and several rip-offs (In Bed, Medicine for Melancholy, Southside with You)?

If there’s a film in this world more romantic than Before Sunrise, I haven’t seen it. A young man and a young woman meet on a train, then spend an afternoon and a night walking, talking, and flirting. The only suspense is whether they’ll have sex.

I recently revisited Before Sunrise and its two sequels for the first time in years. As I watched Sunrise, I realized that this simple love story about complicated people belonged my A+ List  of all-time favorites – my own personal greatest films list.

Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) meet on a train crossing Europe. They’re both young, unattached, and attracted to the other. Jesse is getting off in Vienna; the next morning he’ll fly home to Texas. He convinces the Parisian Céline to get off the train and spend the rest of the day – and night – with him.

That’s not a promise of sex. Neither of them have enough money for a hotel room; their plan is to walk the streets of Vienna until morning.

And they do. They visit an old cemetery. They talk about parental expectations. They meet with a palm reader and a street poet, and Jesse proves to be far more skeptical about these people. They talk about past crushes and relationships. They look at each other when they think the other isn’t looking at them. They share their first kiss together at sunset, in the giant Ferris wheel made famous by The Third Man.

And, as the night gets deeper and later, they begin to fear their separation. They live thousands of miles apart, on different continents. This is before the Internet, and long-distance romances were much more difficult to maintain.

Both actors give great performances, and it’s always the little things that impress you. In one early scene, Jesse moves to fix a stray hair on Céline’s head, but loses his nerve and retracts his hand. Not too long after that, she plants that first kiss.

The open ending is absolutely perfect. For nine years after seeing Before Sunrise, I wondered if these two fictitious people got back together or went their separate ways. It was a delicious wonder.

The Sequels

I didn’t like Before Sunset when I first saw it in 2004. That’s not surprising. I went in not wanting to like it. After all, its very existence killed that 9-year-old delicious wonder.

But revisiting the movie recently with a more open mind, I liked it a lot. Jesse and Céline meet again after nine years. They talk, joke, and occasionally flirt. They both have found disappointment in their lives. The film is set in real time – its 80-minute runtime matches 80 minutes in the life of the characters.

It’s still the weakest of the three, but this time, I liked it very much. I give it a B+.

The third film, Before Midnight, is an entirely different beast. Jesse and Céline have been living together for nine years. They have twins. They’re vacationing in Greece and for part of the film they hang out with friends. And they have a big fight that leaves you wondering if their relationship will last. You can read my full review.

Before Midnight may be just as good as Before Sunrise, although in an entirely different way. I gave it an A when I first saw it and I still stand by that grade.

Why can’t I give it an A+? I save that top grade for films that have stood the test of time; they must be at least 20 years old to qualify. Before Midnight won’t be considered until 2033.

If Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy stick to their past schedule, we’ll have two more Jesse and Céline movies by then. Perhaps they’ll be called Before Lunch and Before Senility.