Richard Linklater may collect an Oscar this year for his grand 12-year narrative experiment, Boyhood, but he's been playing with the cinematic concept of time for much longer than that. Nowhere is this more evident than in his quietly sweeping Before trilogy, which charts the romance between Jesse, an American tourist, and Celine, a Parisian student. Its first installment, Before Sunrise, came out 20 years ago today to little fanfare and minuscule box office receipts, but over the years the film has established a reputation as a landmark of indie filmmaking, partly because of the sequels (Before Sunset, Before Midnight) that gave serious storytelling heft to its central couple.
The three films, when watched in swift succession, are a magical experience similar to Boyhood, partly because of the thrill of watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy age. But that doesn’t detract from Before Sunrise’s singular appeal: It remains my favorite film of the trilogy despite being, in many ways, the sunniest and silliest. Sunrise charts the chance meeting of Jesse (Hawke) and a Celine (Delpy) on a train to Vienna. The pair strike up a conversation and impulsively decide to go off together, wander the city for a night, and discuss their feelings on the world and their place in it.
It sounds, and occasionally is, insufferable, but that’s part of the movie's charm, and it only gets cutesier now that its viewers have aged alongside the characters. Jesse’s pontifications come off all the more eye-rolling and tiresome—he’s the Ugly American wandering through Europe on a rail pass without speaking any languages, and deep down he knows it—and the first act of the film mostly features Jesse trying to impress his unshakably cool French companion with a mix of earnestness and aloof self-awareness. What makes Before Sunrise a success is that we see the allure (it helps that Hawke is a pretty appealing actor) while wincing at the fumbling twenty-somethingness of it all.
The film makes more effort to present both Jesse and Celine's sides than many a modern indie might. Linklater collaborated with writer and actress Kim Krizan on the script to try and attain a gender balance, and mostly succeeds, but there’s always the sense that the more extroverted Jesse is trying to crack the tougher nut that is Celine. It works not just as a romance, but as a metaphor for the listless, grungy youth of America’s early ‘90s seeking answers to questions their (oft-divorced) parents made no effort to address. Remember when Budapest, just a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, was a truly exotic location? Jesse is en route from there to Vienna, bumming around looking for answers to life’s big questions (as well as getting over an ex-girlfriend who recently burned him).
The European exoticism helps give Before Sunrise a time-capsule feel. Its sequels reveled in their locations too, but the feel is different—Before Sunset has Jesse and Celine meander around Paris in real-time to lend it some immediacy, and Before Midnight takes advantage of the picturesque beauty of the Greek peninsula, but could also be set in a dozen other similarly pretty locations. Sunrise really acts as if Vienna is a magic kingdom laid out for Jesse and Celine to have their perfect night, down to the poet by the canals who creates an original work for them on the spot.
You couldn’t make the same movie today without feeling shamelessly twee (that business with the poet reminds me of Zach Braff’s films more than anything else). But there are a million reasons you couldn’t make Before Sunrise again. Watching the film again conveys how Jesse and Celine’s journey is joyously free of the Internet or smartphones; their dramatic parting has all the more weight because there’s no Facebook for them to reconnect on. They promise to reunite in six months rather than exchange contact information, a childish impulse they roll their eyes at nine years later in Before Sunset.
While Before Sunrise might feel like it consists primarily of low-key conversations between two twenty-somethings, compared with Linklater’s early filmography, it's a major progression for him into conventional storytelling. The seminal Slacker (1991) felt groundbreaking (for an American indie) by entirely rejecting a linear narrative, and Dazed and Confused is also rooted in the vignette form, but after making Before Sunrise, Linklater began telling more conventional stories with some Hollywood thrust to them, like The Newton Boys and School of Rock.
Before Sunrise straddles the middle: its narrative may feel ambulatory, but it goes from point A to point B with more directness than Linklater had ever tried before. The irony is that Before unwittingly kicked off the director's greatest achievement in storytelling by revisiting Jesse and Celine’s story every nine years; in Sunrise they’re college graduates wrestling with the real world, in Sunset they're melancholic thirty-somethings wondering what went wrong, and in Midnight they're a settled married couple who keep wondering if there should be more. Boyhood was a unique achievement with a never-before-seen format, but the evolution of Sunrise feels like much more of a happy accident, a piece of seminal whimsy eventually spun into gold. That you can still watch it as both a heartwarming romantic interlude that stands alone, and as the beginning of a far grander tale, should cement it in the canon.