Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American on a train to Vienna to catch a flight back to the States. Celine (Julie Delpy) is on her way back to Paris after having spent some time visiting her grandmother. An arguing married couple on the train causes them both to flee to the lounge car together, and from there they get to know one another. So intrigued by Celine is Jesse that when the train stops in Vienna, he convinces her to depart the train and spend the night wandering Vienna with him before he has to catch his flight. Feeling the same connection as Jesse had, Celine agrees.
And thus begins a magnificent hour and forty minutes of character study and romance. There are no crazy late night shenanigans in Vienna, just Jesse and Celine walking around the city, experiencing the sights and each other. Their first kiss might be one of my top ten favorite first kisses in cinema. Understated and romantic with no need for sweeping music or intense declarations of love. Delpy and Hawke’s chemistry is incredible and the dialogue is so natural that yes, even I thought for most of the film that the actors had to be improvised. When I found out every conversation was scripted and rehearsed all the way down to the overlapping lines, I was even more impressed with the movie.
Richard Linklater is incredibly patient with the building of Celine and Jesse’s love story. Obviously, there is an instant connection and attraction, but there is also uncertainty and awkwardness which makes their relationship increasingly relatable. I loved that there was no melodrama here, and the lack of sex between the characters was a relief, as I feared that brand of intimacy would ruin what the two characters had already built together. Celine and Jesse don’t have any conversations that could be considered life-changing. They’re just talking about who they are and what they believe. They’re not flawless.
I have to say there are two scenes in this movie that stole my heart. The first is in the record store, where Celine and Jesse huddle together in a cramped listening booth to listen to Kath Bloom on vinyl. They are standing close, each stealing glances at one another as soon as the other looks away. The timing between the sweet glances is spot on and Delpy and Hawke both brilliantly project the air of newfound infatuation mingled with just a tiny bit of awkwardness, and oh jeez, haven’t we all been there?
My second favorite was their fake phone calls to one another in a restaurant, where they each pretend to call their best friends back home to tell them about their experience that night in Vienna with a stranger they met on the train. They’re able to be honest about their feelings for one another under the guise of talking to their friends, and it might just be the most mesmerizing scene in the entire movie.
I’m actually a little relieved that it took me this long to see Before Sunrise because I’m not sure I would have wanted to wait another nine years to find out if Jesse and Celine ever saw one another again. I’m excited to watch the remaining films and see where time ultimately took Jesse and Celine’s story.