Last year, the BBC carried out a highly unscientific poll to see what the nation’s favourite Valentine’s Day film was. The top two nominated were Casablanca and Dirty Dancing, both of which are understandable, if slightly broad, choices. But for me, there is really only one choice: Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, a film so wonderful and true that it makes even the likes of me believe in soppy things like love at first sight. Bleargh.
Richard Linklater’s first two full-length films, Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), were dialogue-driven ensemble pieces, dizzily paced yet full of insights into their characters and settings. There are elements of that construction in his third feature here, but we are limited to focusing on just two people: Jesse, an American travelling to Vienna for a flight, and Celine, a young French woman on her way to Paris. They meet in a train, feel a connection between each other, and the former convinces the latter to alight with him in the Austrian capital in order to get to know each other better.
This is the only leap of faith the film asks us to make: there are no Richard Curtis-style dashes to airports or absurdly over-the-top public declarations of love, just a decision between two people to spend time together. And spend time they do; the film merely consists of the two roaming the streets of Vienna late at night, in the knowledge that in the morning Jesse must catch his flight, and Celine must get back on the train to Paris. It is a clever device; although the film does not unfold in real time, it never seems to take massive temporal jumps, and this continuity coupled with the knowledge of their strict time limit forms a strange kind of a dramatic tension as the film goes on. It is, in a sense, like the timer on the bomb in a James Bond film, relentlessly counting itself down.
The idea of time running out is in direct contrast to the characters themselves; from their early conversations onwards, we establish that they are both young, free, and with the world seemingly at their feet. Time, life, careers, relationships: all of these stretch out before them like an endless highway vanishing into the horizon. They are still young enough to be idealistic, to set their sights on goals they may never come close to touching, to still believe that their true love is waiting for them, somewhere.
It is to the actors’ credit that most of this is said implicitly, and that even the most weary and cynical among us can recognise something of our younger selves in these characters and their outlook on life. But greatest credit should go to director Linklater; with a premise and script such as this, it would still have been easy to turn the project into a slushy, sentimental, overly saccharine Meg Ryan of a film; there was also the danger of allowing the beautiful setting to overwhelm the characters, and the whole thing to turn into a picture postcard of Vienna. But there is a remarkable series of shots towards the end of the film, a collage of the various places our characters have been, at daybreak now deserted; but for all their splendour, the beautiful Viennese buildings and parks, deprived of Jesse and Celine, now seem hollow and lifeless, the antithesis of the picture postcard image.
Linklater, Delpy and Hawke would reprise their roles twice further, briefly in Waking Life (2001) and then in Before Sunset (2004), arguably the better film, where we see older, more experienced and cynical versions of the characters, meet again and start the magical process of discovering each other all over again. That film is more savvy, more technically bold, and the characters have more to lose, so feels more edgy and risky. But Before Sunrise is the perfect film for Valentine’s Day, a film which time and again so easily fools us into believing that falling in love is as simple as stepping off a train, and into someone else’s life.