Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 22, 2017)
Though it didn’t do much at the box office, 1993’s Dazed & Confused turned into a cult success and introduced director Richard Linklater to a mainstream audience. Rather than give moviegoers more of the same with another teen comedy, Linklater took a different path with his follow-up, 1995’s romantic drama Before Sunset.
On the train from Hungary to Austria, American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student. They immediately enjoy a connection, so Jesse asks Celine to spend the day with him in Vienna. She agrees, and we follow their interactions with the backdrop that Jesse must fly home the next day.
That’s not what you’d call much of a plot, so one shouldn’t go into Sunrise with the expectation of a story-driven film. Outside of its “relationship with an expiration date” concept, we don’t find much onto which we can hang our hat beyond the character elements.
Because of this, the lead actors become especially important, and both Delpy and Hawke do well in their parts. Whatever attachment we make to Jesse and Celine occurs largely due to their charms, as they manage to bring a fair amount of honesty and heart to the roles.
Unfortunately, they can’t quite make Sunrise a particularly interesting experience. A story like this runs into a mix of potential problems. On one hand, it needs to be dreamy and romantic enough to involve the viewer, and since 95 percent of the running time consists of dialogue, the participants need to offer comments that maintain our attention.
On the other hand, those trends/requirements can dilute realism. Face it: conversations on dates aren’t usually terribly compelling for observers, so a reality-based chat would probably become pretty boring in a hurry.
This leaves Sunrise in a difficult spot where it wants to seem realistic but it also needs to entertain and enchant us. I don’t think it does other especially well, as the interactions between Celine and Jesse fail to do much to stimulate.
Not that Sunrise actually turns into a bore – it does manage to keep the viewer with it to at least a moderate degree. It just never turns into anything especially fascinating, and the characters become a large reason why, as they remain fairly uncompelling.
In truth, they offer clichés. Celine is the dreamy, artsy European while Jesse presents the more hard-edged, semi-cynical American. This overstates their character trends to a degree - Sunrise doesn’t make them cardboard cutouts – but they still fall into those traps more than I’d like.
The movie expands them somewhat but I can’t say I ever develop much of an attachment to Celine and/or Jesse. In this kind of story, I should fall for them as they fall for each other, and I should feel some heartbreak at the seemingly hopeless nature of their future.
None of that happens, and I’m not entirely sure why. I could complain about the level of pseudo-intellectual discourse between Jesse and Celine, but I won’t because that feels like one of the film’s more honest elements.
As a guy pushing 50, I can scoff at the notions posited here, but I’m not so old that I can’t remember when I would’ve babbled in the same way during a date. As young adults, we all think we’re smarter and more perceptive than we are – heck, I probably got stuck in that phase decades ago – so the conversations strike me as fairly realistic.
This doesn’t make them particularly interesting, though, and the need to listen to 100 minutes of these observations makes Sunrise a chore much of the time. There’s just not much about the characters’ interactions that draws us to them.
Of course, the scenery helps. Sunrise acts as a nice travelogue for Vienna and makes me want to hop a plane there tomorrow. With so much natural charm on display, the city allows the film to go down more easily – the same story set in Muncie wouldn’t work as well.
I do like the concept of Sunrise, and every once in a while, it threatens to tug at whatever romantic heartstrings I possess. Unfortunately, too much of the film becomes a bit of a bore.