Minimalist narrative cinema seems to be a thing long gone from contemporary filmmaking. Sure you get a film like The Trip, from which I just returned from viewing, that relies on the discussion over the style or non-language elements of the film. However, there was a time in the nineties when directors felt it necessary to focus on people simply engaging in conversations. Noah Baumbach, Jim Jarmusch and many others approached this format with much success and praise, however, it was quite clear that nobody performed the conversation film with as much poise and grace as Richard Linklater and his 1995 work Before Sunrise certainly proves this. While it initially seems like a dry conversation piece set abroad for affect, it becomes clear quite quickly that the film offers much more in the way of tapping into some universal truth about love, lust, and friendship. It also questions the length necessary for two individuals to build such a relationship and to what extent such an amount of time has on the validity of their experiences. Tacky romantic comedies fail to build a believability and approachability even remotely close to what Linklater offers within Before Sunrise, because between his constantly precise directing and the excellent acting of the lead roles, each pause, quick glance and whispered line makes the film incredibly intimate and unabashedly sentimental. I would be hard pressed to find a romantic film from the nineties that I would enjoy more.
Before Sunrise, as noted earlier, focuses on two people who, while riding on a train, suddenly find each other to be soulmates of sorts and vow to spend an entire night together in Vienna and part in the morning to go their separate ways. The man is Jesse (Ethan Hawke) an American in his late twenties who clearly has a rebellious past from which he clearly wishes to be distanced. His love interest is the French woman Celine (Julie Delpy) who clearly enjoys throwing caution to the wind, while also asserting her own power as an independent woman. The two appear to be somewhat opposite in their life goals, Jesse clearly concerns himself with scraping by and drifting, while Celine desires to excel and make notable differences in the world. One could call Jesse a young soul and Celine an old. The two debate various things through the night while running into a variety of Viennese people, all with their own stories and existences. The two continue through the night eventually obtaining a bottle of wine, which they use to enjoy a night in the park. At first, Celine is reluctant to sleep with Jesse, because she fears that he is merely attempting to fulfill a male fantasy of the foreign one night stand, but as they continue to talk it becomes clear that he cares deeply for her and desires her genuinely. As the sunrises the two part ways at the train station agreeing to meet again at the same place in 6 months, however, the film closes with all the locations in which they spent the evening empty, suggesting that the second meeting never occurs (although there is a sequel).
Minimalist narrative can be awful and when done incorrectly, a handful of contemporary indie films show this to great extent. As such, it is important to discuss what proves a successful recipe for a good narrative only film. First and foremost, believable characters make minimalist films work. If the characters are too entwined to the directors personal life it is hard for casual viewers to relate, this is not the case with Before Sunrise. Even knowing Ethan Hawke as a relatively popular actor, his character, as well as that of Celine seem somehow possible, and despite the story seeming incredibly unlikely, Before Sunrise for whatever reason seems plausible. We as viewers want this story to work. Another factor is the topics of discussion within the film, they must be varied. Bad narratives falter from focusing too heavily on one subject, from my experience usually music or literature. Before Sunrise covers many topics: from fratricidal spiders, to women's liberation, to world politics. The insights are multifaceted and surprisingly unbiased. Finally, and most importantly, the film has to have the one perfect scene. In Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, it is the scene at the end in which Owen Wilson's character belts out "They can't get me...I'm fucking innocent," in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law...it is the entire movie. As for Before Sunrise, it is without argument the pinball scene. Delpy and Hawke deliver it so perfectly in synch that it is really hard to believe that you are indeed watching a film. Before Sunrise covers all these tenants, and many more, making it a masterpiece of minimalist narrative.
Before Sunrise is an excellent film and a staple of nineties romance. Purchase a copy of this film if you enjoy American indie films or the work of Linklater, but at the very least rent this film.