Before Sunrise is the quintessential 1980s film… except it was made in the early 1990s. It’s the very definition of a cult film, and an enduring one at that. Released on 27 January 1995, with a budget of $2.5 million, the film only grossed roughly $5.5 million at the box office with a $1.5 million opening weekend. Directed by Richard Linklater and starring the then-unknown Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, it’s become better known because of what’s happened after the movie was made. Squarely set in the romance genre, it’s also not your typical romance film – anybody can enjoy this film, no matter their views on romance.
The movie begins with a slightly stereotypical romance scene – that of the train and single young people traveling alone throughout Europe. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American student that finds himself on the train traveling to an airport to fly back to America after some time spent abroad. He notices Céline (Julie Delpy) on the train and strikes up a conversation. Eventually, they step off the train together in order to spend a single day together, to see what might happen. Snapping back to reality, this is the kind of scenario that wouldn’t occur very frequently in today’s modernized world. It’s a charming snapshot of the past and what could have occurred.
Now the cinematography itself is meant to convey the essence of the scenario itself and nothing more or less. Nothing is implied with the camerawork. The focus is on the story itself and the two people involved, not the city, not some mysterious trinket, not special effects, but purely about the fictionalized story that we find ourselves immersed into. We’re essentially given an opportunity to peer into a single day of two people.
Two people and yet there’s infinite possibility as to where the story could have gone from their original chance encounter aboard the train. Man and woman. The essence of youth itself. The early 1990s. Before technology became pervasive. And yet, the wonder of the plot itself is that it couldn’t happen today without both people being Luddites of some form. Two people can’t simply disappear completely after that one brief encounter, especially with how much they learned about each other.
We’re able to get a glimpse at a first-date sort of situation. Only it’s even beyond that. In today’s “hook-up culture” where group outings and “hanging out” passes for social interaction, it’s charming to see a spontaneous “hang-out” as it would have been in the early 1990s & late 1980s. What adds to the charm is that the movie simply implies and requires the viewer to draw their own conclusions instead of directly spoon-feeding the viewer. As a bonus, we’re able to somewhat listen to the pseudo-intellectual slash 80s/90s cultural bias going on in the conversation between Jesse and Céline.
As it winds from day to night, we’re starting to see a relationship blossom far past what an ordinary first date would produce. It’s clear that the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is real. They’ve got an easy repartee, seem genuinely interested in each other, and have fun together. Either that or they’ve both got fantastic acting skills. The “telephone game” scene of the movie is probably where we best see the depth of their bond.
And that line of dialogue alone, “I met a guy on the train, and I got off with him in Vienna” is probably the best one-sentence summary you possibly could make for Before Sunrise. It’s such a simple premise, but it wouldn’t work with just any two random people. And that’s probably why Before Sunrise has become such a cult film on home video. The generation that grew up watching that movie saw a reflection of their lives and the possibilities within. Not everybody can hop off to Europe without a care and meet the person of their dreams. This is the escapism that this movie promises the viewer, and it delivered in spades.
While the plot is simple, the dialogue is essentially simple building blocks delivered well by Hawke and Delpy such that they’ve become quotable lines in their own right. I don’t think that after viewing this movie that anybody would even really remember the plot itself apart from the dead-simple formula of “boy meets girl, they fall in love, they live in two different worlds separated by distance, they promise each other to meet again and depart each other”. It’s essentially a modified Romeo and Juliet story for the late 1980s – early 1990s. And as it stands, there’s always been one truly great romantic film made in every decade that defines that decade. Before Sunrise is a very strong contender for its decade, but I have a hard time placing it in the 1990s. Here’s what I mean:
- 1930s – Gone With The Wind (1939)
- 1940s – Casablanca (1942)
- 1950s – Roman Holiday (1953)
- 1960s – Doctor Zhivago (1965)
- 1970s – Annie Hall (1977)
- 1980s – When Harry Met Sally (1989)
- 1990s – [Contenders: Before Sunrise (1995), Ghost (1990), Pretty Woman (1990), Beauty & The Beast (1991), Jerry Maguire (1996), As Good As It Gets (1997), Chasing Amy (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and Notting Hill (1999)]
I think there’s some strong contenders for the 1990s decade, but I’d say that Before Sunrise is in my top three out of the listed 1990s films – the other two I’d pick would be 10 Things I Hate About You and Notting Hill for the title of “quintessential 1990s romance film”. Of course this is always open to debate, as are my selections for the previous decades. Before Sunrise is a fine story, worthy of your time, and certainly something you should watch someday. But it isn’t in the pantheon for me.
MPAA Rating: R