Before Sunrise – A Young Person’s Game

I feel as though the Richard Linklater film, Before Sunrise, is a film I’m supposed to like. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy star as two young travelers who agree to spend a day together in Vienna before going their separate ways the following morning.

It begins a sort of love affair with the ordinary for Linklater. “The whole tv show would be a bunch of people living their lives for twenty four hours” Hawke tells Delpy on the train, as he debates sending in footage to be the hardest part. This is laughable in a post-YouTube era. And this concept not only has been done before but now is encouraged. With large scale movies and television on hold due to coronavirus, everyone is digging out Lav Mics and cameras and snowball microphones, and they’re all sold out on Amazon. It seems like everyone is starting a podcast or vlog series about what it has been like to live during a pandemic.

For Hawke and Delpy, no such virus exists, but what remains is an exploration of 90s cynicism that in my opinion does not hold up. It’s a movie that I wish I could have seen in college. So just like the two characters, the timing wasn’t quite right.

The major problem with the movie is in its constraints. Annie Hall is a close comparison, but their neuroticism and more intense ideas, not to mention the speed of the delivery, means you do not have to deal with the pretension for long before they are off to a different subject. Here, when Hawke finds himself skeptical of every palm reader and street poet, I discovered that I didnt like either of them. Delpy’s open-mindedness future proofs her character, but it also prevents her from firmly challenging Hawke too readily.

The highs of the film, and the lows of the film, can only reach to a certain register. Delpy and Hawke do not remain for long enough in each other’s arms to annoy each other, though there is one brief struggle for attention, “like a little boy” from Hawke. And Delpy, besides a brief moment of paranoia about the media controlling how we think, seems to have a healthy obsession with her parents’ expectations. As she debates her feelings on love, Hawke is clearly jaded from his failed long distance relationship with a girl in Spain. Both are a salve for each other, but unfortunately, it doesnt make for great film.

A better alternative in my opinion is Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Trade the romance for friendship, Vienna for Japan, and give us multiple days, and suddenly the film is given a chance to breathe, for the characters to be apart, for the flow of the film to stretch and contract. The irony of Before Sunrise is the way we get annoyed at them. The best part is when it ends, and the two characters find themselves changed, tired, and somewhat glad from the whole experience.

Because the characters are expected to be together, we expect them to say impressive things. And unfortunately the two characters do not go all in. Where Rachel Cusk takes no quarter, and dives headlong into conversations which could hardly ever happen outside of the literary world, their headiness and cerebral arc gives us new ways of approaching ordinariness. No one has missed Delpy’s interpretation of the media by 2020, and Hawke’s American pragmatic dismissal of anything pagan or artistic is just as lame. I was waiting for something profound, especially from the palm reading. The benefit of prophecy is not in the telling but in the acting. Delpy is told by the teller’s smokey voice that she is an adventurer in the making. Regardless of whether it is true right now, Delpy has the chance to make it true. Neither of the characters explore that.

One could argue that the film is less a movie and more a concept, where each bit of conversation is a leaping off point for couples who are actually dating. This idea ties in nicely with Delpy’s idea of God, which is in the action rather than the objects. Poet David Whyte’s idea, entitled the “conversational nature of reality” explores this topic further.

The real movie lies in between the film and the viewer, and eventually in the dinner or drink of the two on a date afterward. And to some extent I can agree with that.

But more often than not, Claire and I were debating the conditions of the movie, rather than what the two had to reveal about their personalities. Their fashion, Hawke’s pudgy stomach, the flawnessness of their skin, wondering what the hell EUROPAFUNK is, and wondering if we’d picked the wrong movie for that night.

I think the film is best watched when you’re young. All the questions and conceits and realizations serve those under 25, and it’s one of those movies that reminds me that I’m an adult. This is not to be viewed as painful: for much of my young life I hated to be young. Just watch these two and realize that they have to play the game of wondering what they look like to each other, and the anxiety that is involved is so boring.

The best example of this is when the two visit a music store early in the film. Delpy grabs a record, thinking she’s heard of the artist before. Hawke recommends they listen to it in the listening room. It’s intimate, as if it’s designed for one, so both crowd in and listen to a record. Both look back and forth at each other, waiting for eye contact, but neither wants to initiate too heavily, so they look away. Additionally, there is a record playing and it’s unclear what their thoughts are on the music. Both could hate it or love it. Neither of them offer an unequivocal expression. Yet neither of them are willing to comment and risk losing whatever magic they have settled for themselves. A Woody Allen film would have debated the concept of listening together before they even walked in, and Sofia Coppola would have more likely put it in montage. For older people, those who have both confidence in themselves and what they like, this scene is annoying. All it really does is remind you of the headache of all those years finding “the one” who will listen to “Jar of Hearts” on repeat with you.

Before Sunrise reminds you that even under the most romantic of conditions, ordinary life still happens, and you have to ask about your date’s neuroses. Delpy nails this in a comment about sleeping with Hawke. “I wanted to sleep with you on the train, but now that we’ve been together all day, I dont think we should.” It’s easy enough to explain. Before, Ethan Hawke was a fantasy, an American in Europe. But now he is just a person.

To a young person, this is all novel stuff. Timing is everything is the thing to realize. For an adult, it’s old hat. We largely realize that compatible people are everywhere and all it takes is for two clocks to strike the same hour at the same time, and poof! Relationship.

All that to say, movies are about timing too, and it’s a shame I missed this when I know I could have enjoyed it most. Hopefully this gets to you before it’s too late.

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