I was all set to open up with a little historical primer about how in the mid-'90s, director Richard Linklater, and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke had various things to prove, that they could be more than Gen X chroniclers in the men's case, and Euroart sexpots in Delpy's. But movies like Before Sunrise resist context: they don't come from anywhere, nor do they cause anything else; if not for the existence of its own sequels, there wouldn't really be another movie out there quite like this one, though we could squint and shrug and mostly confidently declare that it has affinities with Rohmer, or some such. Before Sunrise looks a lot like a typical Gen X romantic indie movie from an age when such things were at their peak, but it isn't - "typical" is about as inappropriate an adjective as you could hope to stumble upon. It is as privileged a moment in the audience's life as it is in the characters'.

The concept behind it is effortlessly simple, implied right there in that elegant, understated title: we meet a pair of young people - Celine (Delpy) is explicitly 23, and Jesse (Hawke) can hardly be more than a year or two older - just seconds before they meet each other on a train bound for Vienna; they get to talking and enjoying one another's company so much that she agrees to join him for a stop in that city, though he has a morning flight, so come sunrise, their magical night will be over. They use the time to learn more about each other, and fall pretty deeply in love.

And so it is, that the film's 100-minute running time consists of virtually nothing but character study, of at least four characters: Celine, Jesse, Celine & Jesse together, and Vienna itself, which forms an extremely vivid living backdrop with which the two protagonists frequently interact, and just as frequently goes by unnoticed in the background as they talk. Having not, myself, visited Vienna, I will not make outlandish claims for the film's veracity, but Before Sunrise has a profound, rich sense of place, with Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel's camera capturing in steady, painterly still frames the streets and parks of Vienna with uncommon grace: not the gross tourism of most American cinematic trips to Europe, nor the pointedly grubby, docu-style aesthetic that had not yet colonised independent filmmaking, but was still available as a choice for super-realism. Neither tourism nor realism is the aim of Before Sunrise; a certain kind of naturalism, yes, but even as the film tries to depict Vienna as sincerely as possible, that sincerity is filtered through a keen sense of the cinematic, and the images are always more important for their artistic and narrative quality than for their naturalism. Though it's a sign of just how great Linklater was as a filmmaker at this time (and still is, though subsequent movies sometimes have called that into question) that naturalism and abstract visual beauty virtually always go hand in hand, here.

It's next to impossible to view Before Sunrise now without reference to Before Sunset, though not in a way that hurts it; if anything, I am considerably fonder of the original now that I have seen the sequel than I was when I first saw it, at a slightly younger age than the characters themselves. By virtue of having seen these people in their early 30s, one is much more keenly aware of the degree to which Before Sunrise isn't just about 23-year-olds in love, but about the condition being 23 years old. One of Linklater's greatest strengths as a storyteller - and if I slight his co-writer, Kim Krizan, it is in part because she has only ever written this film and its sequel and thus her sensibility is harder to pinpoint - as I say, one of his strengths and perhaps the one that is most unique, is that he makes us entirely aware of who his characters are, opens up their flaws, and then proceeds to entirely not judge them in any way (his recent Bernie, which makes us fall in love with a self-confessed killer, is an extreme example of the form), and Before Sunrise is an amazingly rare example - possibly the only one in existence - of a movie that looks at its unformed young leads, chatting at a mile a minute about the things that matter to them, finds them to be awfully windy and pretentious in a lot of ways, and still loves them for it. Other films made around the same time with characters in the same age group would present such monologues as a message for us to engage with; Before Sunrise only wants us to understand as best we can who Celine and Jesse are, and where they're coming from, and does not especially care if we agree with their philosophies or want to discuss them further.

Even beyond a terminal case of the Twentysomething Intellectuals, there are little nagging problems: Hawke's incredibly fearless performance lets us see all the little ways that Jesse is posing and preening, even if it's as small as the pitch of his voice or the way he sits (there's a shot, relatively late into the movie, where he's straddling a rail some couple of dozen feet in the air, in the untroubled "oh, I'm sitting on a perilous ledge? huh" manner of young men wanting to seem cool in front of young girls the world over), and where the script does not even start to imply that Jesse is desperately trying to impress Celine, Hawke's sidelong glances and studied line readings key us in. As for Celine, she has a certain pushy righteousness to her, a desire not just to do good but to be known for doing good, and for holding the right opinions. Part of the thrill of the movie lies in watching these poses fade away; part of it is in finding that we love the characters not despite their flaws, but because those flaws are characteristics of who they are as human beings. And in the main, who they are is entirely likable and appealing: two young people perched between "I have it all figured out" and "I have nothing figured out", with a curiosity about the world that leads them to have their adventure in the first place and to make the most out of the stops along the way - encounters with a palm reader and a street poet are my favorites among the many story beats that dramatise the way that that open-minded young people can engage with the world around them - the same curiosity that is the reason they talk at such length about such a variety of topics both theoretical and practical, is what makes them such a good fit for each other, and so exciting for us to watch.

Having so perfectly drawn two characters in the most open, receptive time of their lives, the movie then adopts their perspective, and it's in this regard that comparison with Before Sunset is most telling. That movie is narrow, focused, and hushed, where Before Sunrise is busy and moving, with lots of details like the pinball machine that the two lovers share, in all its rattling, spinning glory. Or Vienna itself, a bustling city of interesting, living people and moments - and if it seems like every place in Vienna where the couple stops, and every person they speak to, is rather too metaphorically appropriate for the story they're living through, of course we are seeing these things through their eyes, and the solipsism of young lovers holds that all of those little details are there for their own benefit.

I could catalog all the small little details that I love, in the setting or especially in the performances - Delpy's ridiculous American male accent, Hawke's nervous attempt to brush her hair aside in a tram, the glorious moment in a record store listening booth when they both try to look at each other without the other one noticing that they're looking - but the joy of Before Sunrise is in finding those moments for oneself. So I will instead jump all the way to the ending: a desperately romantic gesture that feels right because by this point the film has entirely absorbed the characters' POV, and also feels maddeningly irrational, because the film nevertheless remains objective about them. It is, in a sense, the most characteristic moment of the whole film, for these are two desperate romantics despite all of the cynicism and politics that they speak to hide that fact, and the final scene could only be played by the dysfunctionally romantic. The combination of optimism, tragedy, and the fuzzy warmth of new love - Jesse's panic when Celine suggests waiting a whole five years to meet up is one of the sweetest, funniest moments in the movie - is absolutely flawless, and the closing shots are the best kind of bittersweet: a montage of the places the lovers have visited, now in full daylight, serving both to remind us of how wonderful their time was, while also consigning those moments to memory. The sequel tells us how things played out, but within Before Sunrise itself, the final sequence, - along with the unreadable expression on Hawke's face, and the solemnity that turns into quiet pleasure on Delpy's, in the final two shots - retains an anxious ambivalence, the mark of an intense passion that has already flared out, youthful exuberance catching up to itself in the hard morning light. It's a breathtaking end to, simply put, one of cinema's finest depictions of the delightful immaturity of being young and being in love.

Reviews in this series
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004)
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013)