One of the most basic rules in screenwriting is that the dialogue should strike a balance with the action and where possible the story should be shown, rather than told. As a what-would-seem logical extension, filling a film with dialogue and putting all action in secondary place is generally considered an easy way out. Although telling the story through the characters’ words can often be an easier way to reach a specific audience or to tell a particular tale, sometimes it’s also, undeniably, the most effective. When the screenplay relies chiefly on the dialogue, the film can go either way. In the case of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the dialogue is definitely what makes the film. There is no action, no drama, no fuss. Everything is kept simple, poetic, flowing and beautiful. And Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke prove to be by far the best people to deliver this effortless ongoing discussion concerning love, life, death, music, family, relationships and time traveling.
Written by the director Richard Linklater alongside Kim Krizan, Before Sunrise tells the story of Jesse and Celine, a young American man on his way to Vienna and a French woman in her twenties, on her way to Paris. They meet on the train and after a brief encounter and just the beginning of what would-later-turn into the longest conversation of their lives, they decide to get off together in Vienna and spend the day and night exploring the city until Jesse’s flight back to the States the next morning. From this point on, there is nothing else but abstract moments in a beautiful European city, philosophical arguments between two sensitive and full-of-life-and-hope strangers. Romance is in the air, but it’s handled very gently, moves up gradually and never becomes cheesy or in the slightest bit boring.
On the contrary, both the director and the two actors do a great job keeping the love story and ongoing reflections close to life, believable and slightly awkward, but in the most realistic way possible. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are absolutely brilliant in their roles. They are intelligent and well-educated, they speak their own special truth and wonder what they don’t yet seem to know in an honest and humble way. They allow their characters to celebrate each moment, to capture the city’s beauty, to connect deeply and meaningfully with one another and to experience something that for this time and place really matters. The delicate sights and sounds in their poetry’s background is the only screen action to be found, but no one would want it any other way.
What’s different about Richard Linklater’s film is the fact that for once everything is shown from the youth’s perspective, but without the youth coming across fake, arrogant, self-absorbed or tiring. These are the real young people, the kind of people that every single viewer can identify with, recognise lines spoken by and recall personal similar experiences thanks to. Jesse and Celine never convince us as fictional characters and until the last minute, we’re sure that we’re witnessing a great day, parts of significant conversations and a romance developing, through a hidden camera, without them knowing. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater make Before Sunrise a film that anyone can participate in, they give us a day in Vienna that we all get to fully live, they force everything to fade into the background while romance is born, they make time stop at moments worth treasuring and remembering and then leave us with a powerful and highly emotional ending when real time starts up again – twice as fast, trying to catch up.