Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). Jesse, an American, meets Céline, a European, in a train in Europe. Jesse asks her to come and spend the day with him in Vienna. The two talk and walk around Vienna, and share their perspectives and experiences on life and love. They get to know each other, and promise to meet six months later at the same place. Before Sunrise is inspired from Richard's own real-life experience where he met a woman in a toy shop. Later, he would go on to make two more films chronicling the life of Jesse and Céline.
One of the recurring themes that is quite pervasive in the film is that of death and mortality. From the early moments in the film till the ending scenes, there are frequent conversations on death between Jesse and Céline. After every few minutes, something related to death comes up. Jesse talks about the ambiguity of death when he narrates the first time, his mother told him about death, and he saw his dead great-grandmother standing in the clouds. Céline replies that she is afraid of death twenty-four hours a day, and it is the fear of death that has forced her to take a train instead of a flight. She says she cannot stop thinking of the feeling of the consciousness before one dies when it is sure that death is coming. Céline hates that there is a war three-hundred kilometers away and people are dying and no one cares about them. Then, Céline takes Jesse to the Cemetery of No Name, where anonymous people who died in the river Danube are buried. She says, "When I was a little girl, I thought that if none of your family or friends knew you were dead, then, it's like not really being dead. People can invent the best and the worst for you."
Later, Jesse talks about his theory of reincarnation, again related to death, where he wonders if modern souls are a fraction of the original souls, which is why, people today are scattered and specialized. When they visit the church, Céline tells him that she always has this strange this feeling that she is an old woman who is about to die, and that her life is the memories of that old woman. During the scene where they play pinball, Céline recalls her meeting with her psychiatrist after a difficult breakup, when she had written a story in which a woman kills her boyfriend. She adds that she got over her boyfriend but she is now obsessed that he is going to die in an accident and she is going to be accused of causing his death. While walking around the city, Jesse talks about two islands, one with one man and ninety-nine women, and the other with one woman and ninety-nine men. Céline says that the island in which there are ninety-nine women, the women would have eaten the man alive, while on the other island with ninety-nine men, the men would kill each other to sleep with the woman. Jesse remarks that at some level, women don't mind the idea of destroying a man. Their conversation on death continues when they see a belly dancer performing. Céline says that the dance is a birth dance, which is still done in some parts of the world during childbirth. The women in the tribe dance in celebration. Then, on being questioned by Jesse, as to where are the men, she replies that they should be lucky as women don't kill the men, unlike in certain insect species, such as spiders, where the woman kills the man after mating. During their imaginary phone call scene, Céline again remarks that Jesse must be scared to death. At some point, Jesse remarks, "I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have only been in a really nice, caring relationship." In fact, his own life, he says, is his own making because he found out his parents did not want to have him, so, he has earned his place in this world in some way. He even says his dream is to become a ghost, and wants to be completely anonymous.
Later, when they go to the boat restaurant, Jesse tells her the story of his friend who became a father. At that profound moment when his friend's son was being born, all his friend could think was that he was looking at something that is going to die someday. In the garden scene during the night time, Jesse tells Céline that people are 'sick to death' of themselves. He wants to have sex with her, but she says they should not. He, then, responds, "We are going to die in the morning, right?", again, referring to death, and that their time is finite, hence, they should make the most of it. Death is present in their conversations ubiquitously, especially, in Céline's, who seems so obsessed with it that even the book that she is reading in the train is related to death and is titled Madame Edwarda, Le Mort (The Dead Man), and Histoire de L’Oeil (The Story of the Eye). In The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don't Run, Rob Stone calls Before Sunrise a morbid film, and writes, "For all its reputation as a romance, therefore, Before Sunrise is almost unremittingly morbid."
A book related to death
The references to death continue in the poem that Jesse recites. He sings some lines from the poem As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden. The poem talks about a narrator who sees a lover singing that he will love his lover forever; however, the clocks tell him that time cannot be captured, and inevitably, death will come to them. The clocks add that even though death and time are more powerful than love, life remains a blessing. and that everyone should do their utmost to live to the fullest.
The years shall run like rabbits,
But all the clocks in the city,
Began to whirr and chime,
O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
In headaches and in worry,
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy.
Tomorrow or today.
If one reads the full poem, it is almost like Before Sunrise is an enactment of that poem. Death occurs in the conversations of Jesse and Céline frequently, like the poem is full of references to death. They have only one night to spend with each other, and they know that their time is finite. At one point, Jesse remarks, "And I think that's so true. Everything is so finite. But don't you think that's what makes our time and specific moments so important?" They will make the best use of the one night, and make it a great night of their lives, in spite of the limited time. Life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless. The poem's title is As I Walked Out One Evening. In the film, walking plays an important part, as the two of them keep on walking. There in a line in the poem that Jesse remembers and sings, "The years shall run like rabbits." Interestingly, when Jesse and Céline had visited the cemetery earlier, Céline says, "Look there's a rabbit," when they see one running, like it happens in the poem. The films ends with Jesse and Céline going away, and we see shots of all the places they visited earlier, again, signifying, that time continues to go on, while life leaks away. There is an old woman who crosses the garden where they were sitting. All these refer to the eternity of Time. The poem also ends, similarly, with the following lines:
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone,
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
At some other point in the film, Jesse and Céline see posters of an exhibition of the work of Georges Seurat. He is one of the most renowned painters known for his work on impressionism and pointillism. Céline looks at the drawings of Seurat that formed early part of his oeuvre. She says that she once visited a museum and looked at Seaurat's work for over forty-five minutes. She loves La Voie Ferrée. The painting La Voie Ferrée is of railway tracks, and voie ferrée means railway tracks in French. The film's first scene is also that of railway tracks. While looking at another painting La Nourrice (the nurse), she says, "I love the way people seem to be dissolving in the background. It's like the environments are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so transitory." She emphasizes the word transitory. The film also focuses on this theme where Jesse and Céline are in transition. They have to travel to different places, and they are only passing through. The film also shows the importance of environment and how it shapes the thinking of Jesse and Céline. Then, they see another painting of Seurat titled Anaïs Faivre Haumonté sur son lit de mort (Anaïs Faivre Haumonté on her deathbed), another reference to death. All these paintings have elements of time, transition, and death. These paintings point to the message of Auden's poem with its focus on the finite time of human life, and to make the most of our limited time in this world. Interestingly, the film's title Before Sunrise is also a measurement of time. Thus, more than romantic elements, the film is replete with subtexts of time and death.
In Translation and Translating in German Studies, Professor Raleigh Whitinger has another take on Seurat and Linklater. He writes, "What makes these drawings immediately identifiable as his creations, and no one else's, is the way their stately, simple shapes arise from an interlace of light and dark from which they cannot be separated. Insofar as something similar could be maintained of Linklater's films—they are logically situated within the major currents of American independent film making yet with a unique approach to perspective—one could speculate that Seurat was something of a role model for Linklater. One can understand Linklater appreciating the work of an artist whose theory is characterized by the harmony of contrasts finding it appropriate for his love story about transatlantic opposites who attract."
Apart from being transatlantic opposites, the contrast between Jesse and Céline is highlighted at some other places, too. Céline thinks she is an old woman, while Jesse says he feels he is like a thirteen-year old boy who does not know how to be an adult. "I always feel like I’m still this thirteen-year-old boy who doesn’t really know how to be an adult. So it’s like I’m pretending to live a life, taking notes for when I’ll really have to do it." At one point they visit the music shop that is named Alt & Neu meaning Old and New. The old and new could very well be the two of them. Céline feels like an old woman. She was even visiting her old grandmother, and brings her story into the conversation with Jesse. He, on the other hand, is a kid. Céline even mentions that he kisses like an adolescent. Céline cannot stand the passive aggressive nature of her parents who never approved of her choices, while Jesse remembers being a kid as a magical time. Céline is fascinated by exotic cultures, while Jesse is fascinated by the poetry of day-to-day life. Céline seems stuck in past, while Jesse often talks about the future. He convinces Céline to come with him by helping her picture her life twenty years later. Céline talks about death as an end, while Jesse is futuristic in the sense where he talks about his theory of reincarnation, and even wants to be a ghost. In an early part of the film, there is a couple fighting in the train. We see another older couple in the train who are quiet and not talking to each other. After twenty years, Jesse and Céline could be having that same argument with their spouses. Before Sunrise is like the meeting of the past, the present, and the future.
Related to above subtexts, there is another time-related pattern in the film. This relates to the time spent by Jesse and Céline as some kind of a time-travel fantasy. At one point, Jesse remarks, "I feel like this is some dream world we’re walking through." She replies, "It’s so weird. It’s like our time together is just ours, it’s our own creation. It’s like, I’m in your dream and you’re in mine." And, then, there is a Cinderella reference where she says when the morning comes, they turn into pumpkins, as if this is a kind of a midnight dream world that they are traveling in. Céline also mentions time is abstract, and that this night seems like a male fantasy of Jesse, where he meets a French girl on a train, sleeps with her, and never sees her again. At another point, Jesse says that the time they spent together has been completely out of time. Being with Céline made him feel like his is someone else. She is his Botticelli angel, waiting for him at the gate back to life. The only other way to lose yourself like this is with drugs, or alcohol, dancing, and other such stuff. In the morning, Jesse says, "Oh, shit, we’re back in real time," underscoring the fantastical elements of their meeting. In the film's script, there is a section that is not present in the film where Céline says, "How come every time you want me to do something, you start talking about time travel?" It is very clear how time is an important theme in the film. They are trying to capture this time, but it moves faster.
While watching Before Sunrise, I could not help but think of the film's influence in some of the Hindi films. In an interview, Shakun Batra says, "If you pick a film like Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, the plot is wafer thin. But it’s just the conversations of two people that makes that film tick. Which is why I rank films like Lost In Translation, Before Sunrise and Annie Hall above others." I was thinking about the character of Tia (Alia Bhatt) in Shakun's recent film Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). Tia plays a character who is afraid of flying, like Céline is scared of flying. Tia and Arjun go on a date to a graveyard, like Jesse and Céline go to cemetery and have profound conversations on life and death there. Baradwaj Rangan wrote in his review of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, "When Dev and Maya finally admit to their spouses that they are in love, Rishi flies into a rage and begins to break things around the house, while Ria remains calm and collected. Rishi wants to know if Maya enjoyed sleeping with Dev, but Ria asks Dev if he’s in love with Maya; the man is more concerned with the sexual aspect of the betrayal while Ria, all woman, tries to come to grips with the emotional implications." Similarly, in Before Sunrise, the first question that Jesse asks Céline is about her first sexual encounter, while she asks him if he has ever been in love. But the most visible influence of the film is seen in Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha. Before Sunrise is one of Imtiaz's favorite films, and all his movies have the central theme of journey spanning across time and space. The first half of Tamasha is particularly influenced by Before Sunrise. Richard's movies also span across time zones,
Lastly, there is a lot of focus on the film's environment. We see frequent shots of trains turning, and crossing each other. Both Jesse and Céline are lucky to meet all the interesting people, such as the palm reader, and the homeless poet; each enriches their experience in some ways. The film focuses on deep conversations, and equally meaningful silences. Before Sunrise is a fascinating and thoughtful film that gets better on every viewing. In one of my favorite lines from the film, that should also be the guiding principle for all of us, Céline says, "I believe if there's any kind of God, it wouldn't be in any of us. Not you, or me, but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it‘s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt." There is a lot to learn from the film, and I am not sure if I fully got it, but as Céline says, the answer must be in the attempt, and I would attempt again to understand it better.
Books In Movies:
Madame Edwarda, Le Mort, Histoire de L’Oeil by Georges Bataille
All I Need Is Love by Klaus Kinski
Dialogue of the Day:
"People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing, but if you think about it, there's nothing more selfish."
—Jesse, Before Sunrise