Before Sunrise: The Fragility of Midnight
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.”
I never watched Troy (2004) by Wolfgang Peterson, but the quote above shared between a wounded Briseis and the rugged, yet tender Achilles always resonated with me. Our relationship with death gives all our experiences meaning and on a much smaller scale; all our deep connections we form add a dash of colour in our lives because those relationships are finite specks in the great dance of the universe.
Before Sunrise (1995) directed by Richard Linklater is an ode to young love, love without restrictions, obligations or expectations; a symbol of love which stays with and haunts us even as we age. The story is comically simple, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) sums up the courage and speaks to Celine (Julie Delpy) whom he spots on the opposite isle in the train before stumbling on a crazy idea: Why shouldn’t she get off the train with him and soul search together in the dreamy streets of Vienna? The pair’s chemistry is almost immediate with so much being communicate by their flirty glances, the subtle biting of their lips and the batting of their eyelashes. Love is blooming in the city of Vienna; but only for fourteen short hours before reality tears them apart.
The shots, camera angles and editing employed in this film are all very elementary; from a technical aspect Before Sunrise is a film where you almost don’t feel the presence of a director. Instead, the camera is simply just a friendly companion documenting the discussions and kisses between the two exquisitely charming lovers. Linklater doesn’t attempt to revolutionise the art of cinematography; but he doesn’t need to, there is already enough beauty in the simple stares of affection between two doomed lovers.
Jesse and Celine banter and share their philosophies, most of which address love; the most painful, yet simultaneously exhilarating aspect of humanity. At first, both are reserved in their comments, trying to maintain their sense of autonomy against the breaking tides of affection they feel for each other. Only slowly, as the night drifts on by and the moon rises above the smoky clouds do they reveal their past scars and aspirations. The couple drift from the melancholic grey of a graveyard to the energetic bustle of an amusement park before finally laying in each other’s arms on a park, letting their pauses do as much as the talking as the actual words they utter.
What do the pair actually speak about? Nothing in particular, Jesse talks about the plot of a television show which he came up with day dreaming on a train and Celine speaks about balancing the idea of being strong and independent whilst also falling hopelessly for a man. One of the most memorable scenes occurs in a listening studio of a record store; as one stares longingly the other avoids contact, only for this role to reverse every few seconds. It’s awkward, it’s embarrassing, but so surprisingly realistic, I have been in the exact same spot dozen of times and so have you.
As the slow cloak of midnight finally descends upon the spellbinding city of Vienna, the electricity of night only intensifies the connection between the couple and the audience is only more hopelessly drawn into their romance. Everything is more mysterious and luscious under the cover of stars; the lovers are transported into a realm of seclusion, where they are freed from the demands and obligations of the day. Linklater captures this fleeting promise of eternality as the pairs wander lost in Vienna and more importantly; lost in each other’s eyes.
The most powerful shot in this film occurs near the very end, as the pair reluctantly separate; Jesse for his plane back to America and Celine on her way back to Paris. Linklater cuts back to the locations that the pair visited, a lonely bridge, the deserted cafe and the grungy underground bar. Except, this time it’s in broad day light. And there’s no love struck couple in the scenery either. The fleeting promises of eternality have also evaporated with the moon and the city wakes up from its blissful dream. The contrast between the locations during the night and day time is drastic and very jarring, and only do we realised how charming these two individuals were. Their locations were irrelevant as long as they could whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears.
The couple stand outside a train which Celine must board; the looming reality which they might never see each other again causes they to spill everything; their feelings for each other and a desire to preserve what they experienced for the last fourteen hours permanently in their minds and souls. They kiss and hug with such passion that Hawke and Delpy stopped being actors in a role; their eyes swam with such tenderness that it forced me to think back on past relationships that I have been fortunate enough to experience. In the spur of the moment, the couple decide to recind their past promise that they would just walk away from each other forever. The idea of them just shelving this night as a symbol for how overwhelmingly beautiful love was just not attractive enough as the possibility for a second night.
But in a world before the advent of Facebook and Whatsapp, this promise seems fragile. Will the couple honour these words uttered whilst under the influence of gripping passions? Celine asks Jesse whether or not they should keep in contact by calling or writing letters to which he dismisses it with the comment “No, it’s depressing.”
I’m afraid of watching the sequel, Before Sunset (2004), part of me doesn’t want to ruin the image of two lost lovers finding solace in the comfort of an anonymous partner. Whether or not Jesse and Celine actually meet again is beside the point, in reality it is highly likely that these two will never cross paths. But that’s okay, or at the very least I am okay with that conclusion, because this film doesn’t attempt to wrap everything neatly together; life is rarely that simplistic. The road doesn’t stop and all you can do is place one foot infront of the other.
But for a brief moment they shared something magical, something which many people will never or have never experienced. Time may roll forwards and Jesse and Celine may visit different cities and drink wine with other foreign lovers. But inevitably whether the pair are stuck in a toxic relationship or whether they are happily married with a loving partner: Once in a while, whether that’s every few months, years or even decades, the pair, whilst sleeping on opposites of the world will inevitably drift back to the first time they laid eyes upon each other; on the train passing through Vienna.