Breaking Down Before Sunrise: A Review and Critical Analysis 

By John Dorsey

July 15, 2013

Warning! This contains spoilers for all three movies of the ‘Before’ trilogy.

My hope is that this analysis of Before Sunrise will allow you to rewatch the film with a greater appreciation and simply enjoy it at much higher level than you ever have before. I will also make the case that it is the best of the three ‘Before’ movies and that the two sequels were in many ways unnecessary.

First, it should be said that Before Sunrise has to be one of the most realistic romance movies ever made. Most of what happens in the movie is perfectly plausible. There are no contrived events, no silly misunderstandings that cause the two to temporarily break up. In many romance movies, we see the two lovers act stupidly, and it’s simply a contrived way to keep the two apart.

There’s also no villain, although you could make the case that time is the villain (or the enemy). From the beginning of their adventure in Vienna, Jesse and Celine have a finite amount of time to be together and realize that they likely won’t ever see each other again after the next morning (though Celine is more accepting of this than Jesse). The tension in the film comes from the countdown of time as it slowly begins to run out on the young lovers.

The conversations between Jesse and Celine throughout the film range from a number of different topics. On the surface, they may seem completely arbitrary and unconnected, but if you pay close attention you’ll realize there are many things that can be read between the lines.

There are continuous references to time and death which are both ongoing themes throughout the movie. Jesse uses a time travel metaphor to convince Celine to get off the train with him. Celine says she often imagines herself to be a very old woman while Jesse says he imagines himself to be a young boy. It was ironically Jesse’s story about seeing his great grandmother’s ghost when he was a little boy that causes Celine to fall for him.

Of course, time and death are interrelated in the sense that all relationships have a finite amount of time before they “die.” Jesse convinces Celine to get come with him and explore Vienna, thus increasing the time they’ll have together but still only delaying the inevitable. Jesse and Celine’s time is measured in hours, but even if the relationship continues and leads to marriage it still would have a finite time before it eventually ends. There are references to how there is no escaping time or death. Celine mentions that she is constantly afraid of death. They visit a cemetery. Jesse quotes a W.H. Auden poem about how time cannot be conquered. There’s nothing Jesse and Celine can do to prevent the end of their time together in Vienna. They make an agreement to meet again in six months, but time still remains a formidable obstacle (i.e. their passion for each other could decline over the months to come; they could meet someone new).

You could argue that Before Sunrise is about the limited time that we have in this world (in both our lives and our relationships), what we do with our time, and how it is ultimately futile to resist these limits. In the sequel, Before Sunset, it is Jesse and Celine’s inability to accept the limited time they were given together that causes them so much misery over the years. As a result, a magical night that could have been an empowering and uplifting memory for the two instead becomes a heartbreaking one.

I’m not going to talk about every scene in the movie, just the ones where I feel I have something worthwhile to say.

The First Meeting

It is pure chance of fate that Jesse and Celine meet, as it is an arguing German couple that compels Celine to change her seat, though she later reveals that she chose her new seat because it was across from Jesse. What’s interesting are the books that each is reading. Celine is reading Madame Edwarda, Le Mort (The Dead Man) which makes sense given her preoccupation with death. Jesse is reading All I Need Is Love by Klaus Kinski which suggests that he is still dealing the bitterness of his recent breakup.

The TramCar scene

What’s impressive about this scene is that it is a long continuous take lasting just over 5 minutes. It’s especially interesting to watch the mannerisms of the actors. Jesse is clearly attracted to Celine and tries to get close, keeping his arm behind her most of the time. At one point, he tries to touch her hair but backs off. On the other hand, Celine sits in a way that is very poised, and she is clearly the more mature of the two.

The Q&A session on the tramcar isn’t just fluff (like you would get in a Tarantino film); it reveals things about the characters. Celine is more passionate as there a lot of things about the world that make her angry; Jesse is more intellectually curious about the workings of the universe. Most striking is Jesse’s refusal to answer in detail Celine’s question about whether he’d ever been in love. He simply says “Yes” and attempts to move to another topic. We later learn that he had just broken up with his girlfriend, and that is why he didn’t want to talk about it.

The Listening Booth

This is one of my favorite moments of the entire movie. Jesse and Celine listen to a love song in the listening booth of a record store. The scene lasts for just over a minute. It is so simple and yet is breathtakingly beautiful as it shows two people beginning to fall in love.

The Ferris Wheel

This scene is another of my favorites. In the original script, Jesse uses another time travel metaphor to get Celine to kiss him. The filmed scene is much more endearing as Jesse tries to be romantic but is impaired by his nervousness, and Celine helps him out by putting her arm around him and asking him if he wants to kiss her. The dance at the juke box afterwards is also sweet and can be viewed as a celebration of the first kiss. A short time later, we get another fun moment when Celine lovingly mocks Jesse’s attempt to romance her in the Ferris wheel, and Jesse quickly tries to change the subject.

The Palm Reader

This is another lovely scene. The Palm Reader is very perceptive when she reads Celine’s palm, telling her that she must learn to “accept the awkwardness of life” and find peace within herself if she wants true connection with others. Jesse’s cynicism and jealousy shows as he humorously mocks what the old woman said. Celine’s belief in magic and romance is also firmly established.

The Church

Jesse and Celine visit an old church. Celine is captivated by its beauty. Jesse tells her a tale about a Quaker wedding. Celine says it’s beautiful but then looks away. Jesse appears to be hinting at something with the talk of a wedding, but Celine is uncomfortable with the topic, given how their relationship is unlikely to last. She seems to be more of a realist than he is. Jesse notices her reaction and tries to lighten the situation with a joke. This is another great example of dialogue that at first glance appears arbitrary and unconnected. You have to really pay attention to understand what is being said between the lines.

The Poet

There are some wonderful lines in the very next scene in which Jesse and Celine ask each other what they’d be doing if they hadn’t gotten off the train together. Celine jokingly says she would have gotten off at the next stop with someone else. Jesse says he’d be at the airport “crying in my coffee because you didn’t come with me.”

Celine tries to get Jesse to tell him what he doesn’t like about her, but he refuses to answer, turning the tables and asking her the same question. She says she didn’t like his reaction to the fortune teller, that he was jealous. This shows how intuitive Celine really is.

Then a man approaches them and offers to write a poem. They agree.

Here is the poem in full:

Daydream delusion

Limousine eyelash

Oh, baby, with your pretty face

Drop a tear in my wine glass

Look at those big eyes

See what you mean to me

Sweetcakes and milkshakes

I am a delusion angel

I am a fantasy parade

I want you to know what I think

Don’t want you to guess anymore

You have no idea where I came from

You have no idea where we’re going

Lodged in life like branches in the river

Flowing downstream caught in the current

I carry you

You’ll carry me

That’s how it could be?

Don’t you know me?

Don’t you know me by now?

The poem is perfect for Jesse and Celine and the situation that they are in. There are references to dreams (daydream delusion; delusion angel; fantasy parade). Of course, Jesse and Celine are in a dreamlike setting. The two have fallen in love but are reluctant to express it to each other (I want you to know what I think; Don’t want you to guess anymore). They have met each other seemingly out of nowhere and are not sure what’s going to happen (You have no idea where I came from; You have no idea where we’re going; Lodged in life like branches in the river; Flowing downstream caught in the current)

Jesse’s cynical nature shows up again as he says the poem was probably prewritten except for that one line with the word they chose.

The Bar

Outside the bar, there is another discussion about time as Jesse ponders what’s the point of saving time since most people never do anything worthwhile with their time. It’s an ironic subject since there’s no way for Jesse and Celine to “save” time; they only have a finite amount of it available to them before they must part.

Inside the bar at the pinball machine, Celine mentions a story she wrote about a girl killing her ex-boyfriend and says “I haven’t killed anyone lately.” In the next few conversations in the street, she mentions killing a man after mating and other things that Jesse takes note of. Later, we learn that she becomes worried Jesse might now be scared of her.

The Fake Phone Call

In another of the film’s high points, Celine and Jesse play another game in which each one pretends to call their friend back home and tell them about what’s happened. It’s sweet and delightful, and it allows the characters to express their feelings and fears, something they would not have the courage to do in a normal conversation.

Up to this point, each has been reluctant to say how strong their feelings are, but using the fake phone calls they are able to make everything perfectly clear. They’re also able to bring up their concerns. Celine fears that she shouldn’t have mentioned the story about a girl killing her ex-boyfriend, and Jesse assures her that it hasn’t scared him at all. Jesse brings ups how insecure he has felt and how he worried that he sounded stupid to her, and she assures him that he didn’t. He also brings up the prospect of them seeing each other again, and Celine manages to avoid talking about it by ending the call. This shows that he is much more hopeful (perhaps naively so) about the future of the relationship than she is.

The Next Morning

Jesse mentions that they are “back in real time,” again alluding to the dreamlike setting they’ve been in up to this point. It has felt has though time had been suspended during their day together.

The Bad Stuff

I wish I could say I love everything about this movie, but that is not the case. For one thing, the film is marred by the vulgar language that often pops up. The swearing is completely at odds with the dreamlike fantasy setting that Vienna provides. It’s especially off-putting to hear Celine get vulgar. Julie Delpy has an angelic presence, but it is diminished when she starts swearing.

The pinball machine scene is my least favorite scene of the movie. Celine looks much less attractive when she’s chugging a beer. It’s also uncomfortable to hear her talk about her ex-boyfriend and how she “thought this one would last for a while” and that he was “bad in bed.”

Furthermore, the various wisdoms espoused by the characters aren’t always all that wise. Celine says it’s healthy for each generation to rebel against everything that came before. It is? Of course, it’s hardly surprising that young people would have such views, but the movie never offers any counterpoint.

I was also disappointed by the apparent lack of religiosity among the characters. The script stumbles somewhat in this department, as we get a mixed message regarding the characters’ religious beliefs. Jesse seems to have a lot of spiritual beliefs (i.e. his talk about reincarnation), he’s been to a Quaker wedding, though it isn’t said what religion he belongs to if any.

Celine also says she believes in reincarnation, yet inside the church she says “I reject most of the religious thing...”

Then there is what are perhaps Celine’s most memorable words in the entire film:

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..."

As poetic as this sounds, I can’t really make sense of it. I simply don't believe that God exists only in "this little space in between." And what sticks out for me is “If there’s any kind of God”, a line which indicates that she doubts God exists. So she believes in reincarnation, but not God? How is that possible? (In the sequel, Before Sunset, Celine says she doesn’t believe in God or reincarnation, although she may have been joking).

I also have a problem with the scene in the park when Celine says they shouldn’t sleep together but characterizes her decision as “very stupid” and “not very adult.” Regardless of whether you think it was right or wrong for them to sleep together, Celine’s reluctance is hardly stupid. They’ve already acknowledged that they won’t ever see each other again, and the possibility of her getting pregnant is very real. So why wouldn’t she be reluctant? Of course, Hollywood movies rarely promote the idea of self-restraint; they usually endorse giving into one’s passions regardless of the consequences.

The Ambiguous Ending

First, it should be commended that the ending of Before Sunrise doesn’t fall into the typical cliché that we see in most romantic movies. What usually happens is that the two lovers part, and then one of them changes their mind at the last moment, and we’re treated to a “running through the airport/subway/train station/street” moment as they desperately try to find the one they love before it’s too late. Thankfully, we are spared this.

Many of the best movie endings are ambiguous. Rather than spell everything out, it’s always best to leave some aspects of the story open to interpretation.

This is what makes (or perhaps I should say ‘made’) the ending of Before Sunrise so great. It leaves open the question as to whether Jesse and Celine will see each other again. They promise to meet each other again in six months, but we aren’t treated to a “Six Months later” epilogue that many Hollywood directors would have been unable to resist.

Most people after seeing the film would immediately speculate about the “Will they/Won’t they” question. There is a great article by Robin Wood (there’s a link for it on this site) who says that he and most people he talked to over the years believed that Jesse and Celine would not keep the December 16th reunion date (although Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy never doubted that they would, at least until they decided to do a sequel).

The real-life obstacles which seemed so remote during their Vienna adventure would now loom very large. Time, money, as well as the distance to travel. Their feelings for each other could very well begin to fade. This does happen in real life (Ironically, it also happened with Jesse's girlfriend in Madrid). There’s also the fact that Jesse and Celine did not exchange phone numbers, making it impossible for either one to know for sure if the other is definitely going to show. If there’s one flaw in the believability of the ending, it’s that they didn’t exchange phone numbers. It’s hard to imagine that both could have been certain at that moment that they’d definitely be able to make the December 16th date. Even if they both made the effort to do so, there are a number of things that could go wrong (a delayed flight) that could ruin everything. True, they were worried about a slow fade, but they could have agreed only to call if one of them was unable to make it. Anyway, wouldn't it have been easier (and cheaper) for Jesse to visit Celine in Paris than to have both of them travel to Vienna?

Even if they did keep the date, there’s always the possibility that they might not be able to repeat the magic of the previous encounter (Vienna is probably not as much fun in the winter cold). And then there’s the question of what they would do after the reunion. The same obstacles would still remain. They still live on different continents. Would they be able to meet again in another six months? Would they really be able to sustain such a relationship?

The film may contain a subtle clue as to the future of Jesse and Celine’s relationship. The fictional date in which they meet is June 16. The following is an excerpt from an excellent review by Erik Syngle:

To anyone familiar with the work of James Joyce, that date is affectionately ingrained and celebrated around the world as Bloomsday—the day on which Ulysses takes place. That this intertextual connection is conscious and deliberate is without question, when we remember that a character from Slacker quoted from Ulysses at length (“This is the part where Leopold realizes that he’s f---ed!”). The obvious link between the two works involves the representation of time. Ulysses was and remains one of the most radical attempts to bring the time-scale of the novel into line with the lived experience of human life. That a dense 700+-page novel could unfold over the course of one 18-hour day is a model that Linklater’s filmmaking has clearly strived to emulate again and again, however otherwise incompatible the two art forms may seem. (Actually, Before Sunrise may have just as much in common with Joyce’s book of the night, Finnegans Wake, which comes to mind during Cèline’s vision of being an old woman laying down to die, watching visions of her life float by.) What is less immediately apparent is Linklater’s mature understanding of the name he so casually drops. Instead of merely alluding to the difficult book he conquered, Linklater knows that June 16 became the setting of Ulysses because of its obsessive personal significance for Joyce—the day on which in 1904 he had his first date with, and began to fall in love with, his future wife and muse Nora Barnacle. (Whether Joyce’s treasured memories were historically accurate has been the subject of much speculation, but in this case it hardly matters or even enhances the effect.) I’ve always taken that as a subtle source of hope, or at least hope for hope, that June 16 might have been the start of another legendary affair and not just a “male fantasy” of a one-night stand.

It’s a fascinating subject to speculate on, and it’s one of the reasons I have a problem with the sequel, Before Sunset, because it tells us exactly what happened. Mysteries only retain their power as long as they remain unresolved. Once you are told what happens, the magic is gone. This is why I would argue that Before Sunrise is diminished by Before Sunset. But more on that soon.

The final moments of the film are wonderful as we get a morning view of many of the locations that Jesse and Celine traversed during their journey. And then we see Jesse and Celine separated. Once more, I will go to an excerpt from Erik Syngle’s review, for he says it better than I could ever hope to:

…I know of no ending to any film more graceful (formally, emotionally, or physically) than of Cèline and Jesse, alone once again on their separate coaches and drifting off to sleep to the strains of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Viola da Gamba. In an instant, everything that went before is made to feel as though it couldn’t have really happened, as if they are both waking up at the same time rather than falling asleep, but finding the pull of wherever they left too strong to be ignored, they close their eyes and, not for the last time in their lives, return to that place where dreams are born.


The Flaws of Before Sunset (Plus A Great Ending)

I really enjoyed Before Sunset when I first saw it in 2004. I still think it is a good movie on its own merits, but I find myself liking it less and less as my appreciation for Before Sunrise has grown. As I’ve said, I believe that Before Sunset diminishes Before Sunrise. One reason for this is because it tells us exactly what happened in regards to the planned December 16th reunion date, and this destroys the ambiguity of the ending which was so powerful.

Even worse, Before Sunset (and to a greater extent, Before Midnight – more on that later) turns Jesse and Celine’s love story into a tragedy. As a result, rewatching Before Sunrise is less fun, particularly the ending when they promise to meet each other again, because we now know that they won’t. We now know that this magical night that Jesse and Celine spent together would ruin their lives. Nine years later, both of them are miserable. Jesse is trapped in a loveless marriage. Celine has been unable to experience anything that would match that night in Vienna, and she has had terrible relationships due to her inflated expectations.

I also find the reason why Celine didn’t make the December date to be rather implausible. Her grandmother’s funeral was on the same day they were to meet? The odds of something like that happening had to be astronomical. I’m also not sure I believe that Celine wouldn’t have skipped the funeral. Jesse was the love of her life, right? Surely her grandmother would have understood and would have wanted her to go. One also has to wonder why Celine didn't go to Vienna the day after the funeral. It might have felt like a long shot at that point, but we know that Jesse was there a couple days and that he left fliers at the train station with his name and number on them, so she probably would have found him.

I also think Jesse might have been able to find Celine if he was absolutely determined. He knew she lived in Paris and that she was 23 when they met. If I had been him, I would have gone to a detective agency and asked for a picture profile of every 23 and 24-year-old woman in Paris named Celine. I think there’s a very good chance he could have found her that way. Also, Celine told him that she went to a school called La Sarbonne in Paris and he was familiar with it, so couldn't he have found her through the school?

Another thing that is odd is when Jesse and Celine discuss their past since they parted ways. Celine says she went to NYU from 1996 to 1999. This means she was in school until she turned 29. Really? Jesse says he met his wife in college. And this was after he met Celine? So Jesse was in college in his mid-to-late twenties as well?

Jesse's book is called This Time, which is a pretty lame title. Wouldn't it have been cool if the book was called Before Sunrise?

The dialogue, while well-written, doesn’t seem to have the hidden layers in it like the first movie did. Jesse and Celine are just not as attractive a couple as they were before, mostly because Ethan Hawke looks much older than his years and Julie Delpy has lost the feminine allure that she had in the first film. Also, the aggressive flirting that occurs between the two feels more than a little inappropriate given that Jesse is a married man.

But the ending is simply perfect, and it is a throwback in many ways to the fake phone call from the first film. Just as Jesse and Celine used the fake phone call to say things that they wouldn't be able to say in a normal conversation, here each of them uses a song to do the same thing.

Celine sings a song (Little Waltz) that she wrote about her night with Jesse, and through the lyrics she is able to tell him just how much that night meant to her and that she is still in love with him:

You were for me that night

Everything I always dreamt of in life

Just one night with my little Jesse

Is worth a thousand with anybody

Even tomorrow in other arms

My heart will stay yours until I die

Interestingly, Celine offers Jesse a choice of three songs, and he just happens to pick the one about him. That she didn't offer to sing just that one song shows that she was conflicted about singing it, and she half-heartedly tries to get him to change his request by saying that she hasn't sung it in awhile. But when he insists, she doesn't hesitate.

Jesse, in turn, plays a song on Celine's stereo by Nina Simone. Here are the lyrics:

Just in time you've found me just in time

Before you came my time was running low

I was lost the losing dice were tossed

My bridges were all crossed nowhere to go

Now you're here and now I know just where I'm going

No more doubt or fear I've found my way

For love came just in time you've found me just in time

And changed my lonely nights that lucky day

Through this song Jesse is able to say what he's really feeling. And Celine starts to sing the lyrics, indicating that she feels the same way. The only drawback is that the lyrics are very hard to understand. Celine dances to the song and after awhile she says, "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane." Jesse smiles and replies, "I know", and the movie abruptly ends.

The ambiguity of the ending, much like the ending of the first film, is perfect. Everything in the final scene strongly hints that Jesse and Celine will get back together, but the viewer is given the freedom to draw his or her own conclusions. The reason this works so well is because to have the movie end with Jesse and Celine making love or even simply kissing would make a lot of viewers uncomfortable (to say the least), since Jesse is a married man, and the two would be committing adultery.

Unfortunately, just like the first film, the beautiful ambiguity of the ending is ultimately destroyed due to the fact that there was a sequel. In the third film, Before Midnight, Jesse strongly hints at what happened: He and Celine made love for several days straight.

I always wanted to believe that Jesse and Celine didn't get together at that moment, that Jesse would have gotten a divorce before the two would reunite. But telling us that Jesse and Celine actually committed adultery makes me like Before Sunset a whole lot less than I used to.

It also makes me want to say to these two:  Grow up. Yeah, your relationship didn't work out. It happens. Deal with it. Enjoy the memory for what it was, but let it go. Stop clinging to the past and move on like 95% of the rest of us do.

The Betrayal of Before Midnight

I always imagined that a sequel to Before Sunset would be about finally seeing Jesse and Celine decide to be together. Thus I was somewhat surprised when I heard of the plot of Before Midnight in which Jesse and Celine are together, have two children, but aren't married. What would be the point of doing a movie if they’re already together? What in the world would this movie be about?

Much to my dismay, the movie would be about a big vicious fight.

I won’t mince words. This is an ugly movie. When it isn’t ugly, it’s mostly boring (with the exceptions of the opening car drive featuring an impressive 10-minute take and the long walk to the hotel). Celine actually goes topless, and the nudity just seems unnecessary.

But seeing Jesse and Celine tear into each other is what is really disturbing. What I disliked more than anything is that we learn Jesse cheated on Celine! This is nothing less than a betrayal of the love story that had been built up over the previous two films. And I cannot believe that Jesse and Celine aren't married. So we're supposed to believe that Jesse would marry a woman he didn't love but not the woman who is the love of his life? Does this make any sense at all?

The fact that Jesse and Celine aren't married is likely due to the left-leaning sensibilities of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. After all, marriage is just so passé, right? They probably thought they were showing just how enlightened they are by not having Jesse and Celine participate in such a patriarchal, oppressive institution. Well, excuse me if I hold my applause.

Jesse and Celine both become unlikeable in this film. He’s a cheater, and she’s a whiny, narcissistic brat who is suddenly upset that Jesse wrote a book about their night in Vienna (of course, they never would have found each other again if not for the book).

We get the impression that these two never really loved each other, that they were simply in love with the fantasy versions of each other that they had imagined over all those years. To be fair, there is an aspect of realism to all this. After all, it’s easy to get along with someone when you’re on vacation in an exciting place like Vienna with all kinds of things to do and see. It’s another thing to get along with them during the mundane activities of everyday life. The passion and excitement of young love is impossible to sustain over the years. Jesse and Celine are from two different worlds, and each has had to make monumental sacrifices (i.e. Celine moving to the U.S., and then Jesse later moving to France) in order to be together. Yes, it's believable that this could strain their relationship. But this kind of realism is not what I want to see in a movie, especially one about a romantic couple that I've cared so much about. Bottom line, I want movies to inspire me. The basic message of Before Midnight seems to be “Love Stinks.” Wonderful.

The movie ends with a reconciliation between the two, but it feels trite. In a throwback to the first film, Jesse uses another time travel metaphor to tell Celine that they are about to have the best sex anyone has ever had. (This is what gets her to forgive him???) So the characters haven’t grown or matured when the curtain closes. They apparently haven’t learned anything at all.

I’ve always wanted to believe that Jesse and Celine were better people than this. In the end, this movie really is a betrayal of a love story that was so magical, and I just want to pretend that it never happened. Actually, I want to pretend that both sequels never happened.

In fact, whenever I watch Before Sunrise now, I pretend that both sequels never happened. I imagine that Before Sunrise is taking place in an alternate universe in which the “Will They/Won’t They” question is still left unanswered, and I can still believe that the love between Jesse and Celine isn’t tragic but empowering and uplifting. I also want to believe that, even if they never meet again, that the magical night they shared in Vienna would not destroy them, but would enrich their lives and make them capable of falling in love again with someone else if that was what fate had decreed.

This is why Before Sunrise is the best of the ‘Before’ movies. Because it is a true romance, not a tragedy.

Make a Free Website with Yola.