Thursday, June 16, 2011

Five-Star Streaming #2: Before Sunrise

(Today is Bloomsday and, as a tribute, this edition of Five-Star Streaming will examine a movie that is actually set on Bloomsday, as a reference to the compressed timeline and digressive structure it shares with Joyce's Ulysses. Enjoy!)

Before Sunrise
USA, 1995
Directed by Richard Linklater

What it's about:
A twenty-something American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a twenty-something French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a long-distance European train. He convinces her to get off the train with him in Vienna and spend an evening together, with the caveat that they will both be leaving in the morning and will, in all likelihood, never meet again. The two walk around the city, discussing ideas big and small in a stream-of-consciousness style conversation that sees them gradually opening up to each other and themselves.

In 1995, Richard Linklater was still primarily known for Dazed and Confused (1993) and his ground-breaking Slacker (1991). On the heels of those films, Before Sunrise helped cement his reputation as both a maverick indie auteur and a chronicler of Generation X's aimless, unfocused energy. This was still a time, remember, when the mainstream legitimacy of independent cinema hadn't yet been proven. Pulp Fiction had fired one of the first modern indie salvos to rattle the establishment, and that had only been released the previous year. The Oscar ceremony often referred to as "the Year of the Independents," when films like Fargo, Shine, and Secrets and Lies broke into the Best Picture category, wouldn't happen for another year. So Before Sunrise, with its drifting, unconventional "plot," wasn't exactly conforming to a well-established mold the way today's "indie" movies (mostly backed by subsidiaries of the large studios) seem to do. Even today, it would be a gutsy move to make a film that, essentially, consists of two people walking and talking and not much else.

Why You Should Watch:
I can't pretend this is a movie for everyone. Linklater and Kim Krizan's often-improvised "script" is full of the kinds of capital-R Romantic notions and undergrad philosophy that stoned twenty-somethings often use to impress each other (a lot like Linklater's later Waking Life [2001]). There's no real story to speak of, at least not in terms of big incidents or familiar narrative patterns. I can easily grasp how some people might consider this a rambling wankfest and be quite turned off to it before it even gets started.

But if you can get past that, there is a great sincerity and wonder buried just below the surface. This is a film about what makes us learn about ourselves, what makes us grow as people. The answer Before Sunrise seems to propose is getting outside of our comfort zones and connecting with other people, even if just for a night. Jesse and Celine go from strangers to something much, much more in the course of their evening together, and you get the feeling that they have been forever changed by the experience. This is the sort of transformative experience we all dream about, in our heart of hearts, whenever we travel. It's a tribute to the spirit of all of those times we've thought about doing something different, something radical or brave or unexpected, only to say no and turn, out of fear, back to our humdrum lives. Before Sunrise is a movie about embracing that possibility, embracing openness as an agent for change, and just putting it all out there, come what may.

If you can at all sympathize with that perspective, or if you've ever traveled alone to a foreign country, or even if you feel like you've lost something of the honesty and optimism of youth, this film might speak to you. Hawke and Delpy are charmingly, utterly convincing in their roles, and make the occasionally-complicated dialog feel natural. And while the look of the film declares it to be very much a product of the '90s, its thematic content is timeless. As long as people still feel trapped by the roles modern society leaves open to them, as long as people look in the mirror and wonder, "What if...?", Before Sunrise will be relevant.

(As a side note, Before Sunrise's sequel, Before Sunset, is also available for streaming. If you enjoy the first one, you'll definitely want to watch the second, which does more of the same but somehow still manages to steal your heart.)

Watch this if you like:
Trivial discussions that feel profound, travel, European cinema, Lost in Translation, having a romantic side, well-defined characters, self-discovery, Eric Rohmer

Five-Star Streaming is an occasional feature championing great movies available to be streamed from Netflix. As of each post's date, the film under discussion was listed as streaming on Netflix's Watch Instantly service in the US. However, due to the volatile nature of licensing rights, I can't always know how long a particular selection will be available, so you'd better watch each film while you can!


  1. There's a neat story in one of Roger Ebert's books about the storyline from the film coming to life. I wrote about it here:

  2. @theoncominghope - That is a great story. Thanks for sharing!