‘Before Sunrise’ at 25 — A Look Back at Richard Linklater’s Modern Masterpiece
Twenty-five years ago this month, a modest film was released in theaters across the United States, to little fanfare. Late January is traditionally a dumping ground for misbegotten movies and, though the film debuted to respectful reviews, it ended up grossing an unspectacular $5.5 million. Yet those few who saw Before Sunrise fell in love with it, and it eventually developed a passionate cult following.
More importantly, the three unparalleled talents behind it — writer/director Richard Linklater and stars/cowriters Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — felt they had created something special and eventually came to believe they had more to say with these characters. This led it to become, in Linklater’s words, “the lowest grossing film to spawn a sequel,” and eventually “the lowest grossing films to ever be a trilogy.”
Today, The Before Trilogy films are acclaimed as classics. They’ve been released as part of The Criterion Collection. The very name Before Sunrise is used as shorthand for a kind of authentic love story all too rare in cinema.
Before Sunrise is a film of unique clarity in its simple premise. It has no conventional plot, no villains, no conflicts — not even any real events. It simply follows two young people, Jesse and Celine, for 100 minutes, as they talk. They meet on a train and walk through scenic Vienna over the course of a day and night, gradually discovering that they’re soulmates. It’s an almost inconceivably difficult thing to pull off. There are no tricks to hide behind, there is no artifice.
Luckily, in Hawke and Delpy, Linklater was gifted with actors of profound skill and depth far beyond their years. We find ourselves in the presence of two human beings who convince us they are genuinely falling in love. They do this without sentimentality or relying on cliché. Granted, they’re both attractive, but that beauty is backgrounded. Their attraction is based almost entirely on intellect — they fall in love with each other’s minds.
Linklater was inspired to write the film by a similar evening he experienced in 1989. He met a young clerk at a toy store in Philadelphia and spent the evening walking through the city and talking with her. Linklater only revealed this fact in 2013, while promoting Before Midnight, the third film in the series. He had then just recently learned that the woman had tragically passed away just before he began filming Before Sunrise in 1994.
From the spark of that magical night, Linklater enlisted Kim Krizan, an actress from his films Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Together, they wrote a rough first draft. Then Linklater searched and somehow found two diamonds.
Hawke was one of the biggest young stars in the world at the time, fresh off a series of hits. Delpy was a European arthouse sensation, seeking to establish herself in the States. The two displayed an instant chemistry that is truly unparalleled in screen history. Together with Linklater, they spent weeks completely refashioning the script before filming in Vienna.
Linklater has said many times that Hawke and Delpy don’t get the credit they deserve for their acting in The Before Trilogy because audiences assume they’re just improvising their conversations.
Anyone who knows how films are crafted knows that’s impossible. Many of the scenes are technically complicated — in Before Midnight, a single scene in a car goes on for one, unbroken, 10-minute shot. That’s only possible if the actors commit to a script already honed to perfection.
Every conversation in The Before Trilogy — every word spoken, every movement — was meticulously crafted in advance by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. They have all taken to stressing this in interviews because they make everything look so deceptively effortless that the films seem to unfold before us organically, in real time.
That’s only achievable through impossibly hard work. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy were rightfully nominated for Academy Awards for Before Sunset and Before Midnight, once people understood how meticulously wrought their scripts are.
Richard Linklater is modern cinema’s poet of time. The greatest accomplishment of his films is that they somehow capture the little indescribable moments of life in all their ephemeral beauty. His masterpiece Boyhood, filmed over the course of 12 years, is probably the most famous example of this. It exquisitely captures the time-lapse journey of a child to tentative young manhood.
The Before Trilogy is something different, however. It gives us three glimpses of a couple at nine-year intervals. Where Boyhood is immediately evident as a sprawling epic of time, The Before Trilogy films are a gradually evolving pointillist mural, whose scope only became visible to the audience and even the filmmakers as they evolved over 18 years.
In addition, the greatest strength of The Before Trilogy is that it has two gifted adult actors at its core, a man and a woman with a great deal to say about the world, and an even greater amount of life experience to inform their characters.
Young Ellar Coltrane takes us on an astonishing journey in Boyhood, but in the end, it’s a film that stars a non-actor child, yet one that’s aimed mostly at adults, looking back on their own childhoods. It’s a film in which the opening scenes were already over a decade old when the film was released. It’s a film about nostalgia.
By centering The Before Trilogy on two adults and releasing each film immediately after it was made, they feel far more vividly in the present tense. Boyhood was filmed in relative secrecy, but The Before Trilogy films have become arthouse events each time they’ve come out. Fans of the series have been able to grow up alongside their cinematic alter egos.
The films have had an especially huge impact on those of us who were roughly the same age as Hawke and Delpy as each film came out. We’ve watched romantic, idealistic twentysomethings grow into achingly lonely but passionately hopeful thirtysomethings, then into comfortably married fortysomethings struggling to reconnect with who they used to be, amidst the baggage of adult life.
Every fan of the films feels a personal connection to them. I was on a high school class trip to Vienna during the summer of 1994 when Before Sunrise was filming, though I had no idea a masterpiece was being created somewhere just blocks away. I was one of the fortunate few to see the film in theaters in 1995, simply because I happened to recognize Vienna in the television commercials.
Hawke and Delpy were a few years older than me, but I could relate to everything they went through. I could see moments I had felt and lived. There were flashes of people I knew in Celine and Jesse, as well as flashes of myself, at both my best and worst.
There’s a universality in the way Before Sunrise conveys the first stirrings of love but also a profound specificity in how it dramatizes two hyperverbal people struggling to break past their internal barriers. Much like its spiritual cousin, the recent Call Me by Your Name, The Before Trilogy films are audacious enough to have no villain, no external obstacles.
Nothing keeps these two people apart, except the mountains of doubt, anxiety and fear they carry inside. The genius of The Before Trilogy is how those emotional obstacles feel more insurmountable than the most megalomaniacal James Bond villain.
In the end, that’s why The Before Trilogy films are still vibrant today. Aside from the lack of cell phones, email, and the other clutter of modern life, there’s nothing dated about Before Sunrise. It’s about an experience that will remain common to humans until the sun burns out: struggling to find the courage to connect with another person and to let them know how much they mean to you.
It’s a message that will resonate forever.