One of cinema’s greatest romances is seen in Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning “The Before Trilogy.” The series tracks the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke, “The Black Phone”) and Céline (Julie Delpy, “Three Colors: White”) from meet-cute to the crumbling of their relationship. The swelling romance felt in “Before Sunrise” flows naturally into the thorny regret felt in “Before Sunset,” which ultimately leads to the frustrating pain and conflict felt in “Before Midnight.” But, in order to work as a series, we have to buy their relationship from the very beginning. We must understand how this deep connection could be formed between the two after spending just one day together and not seeing each other for another nine years. “Before Sunrise” perfectly lays the groundwork for the entire series by building intimacy between Jesse and Céline using space in ways only the medium of film can.
The ways people typically build intimacy are all present in “Before Sunrise,” like opening up to one another and touching each other. But those alone don’t convince the viewer of the relationship between Jesse and Céline. As much as Hawke and Delpy’s palpable chemistry adds to the audience’s understanding of their deep connection, what makes the exploration of this relationship more powerful as a film — as opposed to seeing it on stage or reading it in a book — is the way Linklater constricts the space around the characters to force them closer together.
When Jesse and Céline first meet on the train to Vienna, their conversations are shot to create distance between them — space that will evaporate by the end of the film, but will come back when they leave each other. When each one is speaking, they either appear alone in the frame — with the excess space around them creating a sort of bubble that the other is trying to break down — or they appear together but spaced on opposite ends of the image, the table creating an artificial boundary between them. They each try to get close to the other, leaning over the table to shrink the distance between them, but a final barrier needs to be broken. Jesse needs to ask her to get off the train with him.
Later, once in Vienna, the two ride the tram around town, killing time with no destination in particular. They head to the back, away from the rest of the tram’s patrons. Linklater gets Jesse and Céline shoulder to shoulder in the frame, but not all over each other yet. Jesse tries to brush a loose hair out of Céline’s face but stops himself. Céline seems like she might be trying to lean into Jesse’s arms but never does. They’re getting closer to that physical intimacy, but they aren’t there just yet. And yet that doesn’t stop them from building intimacy in other, non-physical ways. Here, the two begin to have more frank, personal discussions about sexuality and love.
As the intimacy between the two builds, so too does the tension, and the crux of this tension comes when the two find themselves cramped in a listening booth playing Kath Bloom’s “Come Here.” The unbroken close-up shot of them brings them as close as we’ve ever seen them, and the two, trying not to let the other see them smiling and staring at them, make a kiss — the only act of intimacy we have yet to see — seem inevitable. But the film makes us wait. Linklater knows he has hooked us, that we have completely bought into their relationship at this point. Despite our own yearnings for them to finally touch, we are willing to wait for the more physical acts of intimacy because the emotional bond between the two is finally palpable.
Despite the vast city of Vienna acting as the film’s backdrop, “Before Sunrise” shrinks the scope to wherever Jesse and Céline happen to be at any given time. The viewer is given no real sense of the geography of the city: Perhaps they’ve walked the entirety of Vienna in one night, or maybe they’ve stayed within a couple of districts. But that doesn’t matter. Jesse and Céline haven’t been paying attention to the city, only to each other, and the film wants us to do the same. At the end of the film, when the two take a moment to take a mental picture of each other, they don’t do it by a major Vienna landmark, they do it on some backstreet. The film has done such a successful job of building an intimate connection between Jesse and Céline that the characters believe nothing else matters except the two of them — and we believe that too.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.