Castle Rock/Warner Home Video .
R4 . COLOR . 97 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Celine (Julie Delpy) on a life-changing train trip.
Having gained rave reviews and a solid profile with audiences after his first two films - 1991’s Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused - writer-director Richard Linklater decided to try something a little bit different. While his first entries into what would become a fascinating and diverse filmography dealt with disenfranchised youth and peer-group politics, Before Sunrise took a very different view of the world. This, you see, is Linklater’s version of a love story - and as you might expect, it’s unlike any conventional Hollywood idea of what constitutes on-screen romance.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American travelling solo on a train through Austria when he encounters beautiful French girl Celine (Julie Delpy), the two meeting thanks to a middle-aged German couple who are fighting loudly in the same carriage. Heading to the lounge car of the train to escape from the racket, the pair start talking and realise almost immediately that there’s chemistry between them. Jesse, though, has to get off the train in Vienna to catch a plane back home, but is so taken with Celine that he asks her at the last moment to get off the train as well and spend his last night in Europe with him, exploring Vienna and continuing to talk. And that’s exactly what they do, the entire night filled with conversations and getting-to-know-you revelations, as the pair quickly realise how much they care about each other. But the deadline still looms large - Jesse has a plane to catch, and Celine has to get back home to Paris. This could be the beginning and end of their time together, a fact which adds a bittersweet taste to the night.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine get to know each other on a Viennese tram.
In the hands of a mainstream-minded director and a bevy of test screenings, this gentle, winningly human film would almost certainly have turned into an outpouring of cliché and sentimentality. But there’s already plenty of that on offer in cinemas and video libraries for the masses that like their romance movies to be as overblown and predictable as possible. What Linklater does best is to tell a story through normal, non-theatrical behaviour and conversation, and he employs that technique here with sparking results. Using extremely long single takes on many occasions, Linklater lets his actors take liberties with the dialogue, free to ad-lib if necessary or fumble the words if that’s what happens. What this means for the viewer is that you often feel like you’re watching a documentary - two very real people falling for each other in a way that very many real people have. It’s so simple, it’s surprising it isn’t done more often: we care about these two very ordinary people because they seem like they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of real life. These aren’t fantasy creations; Celine is an open-minded free spirit who’s held back by self-loathing, while Jesse is bruised and cynical after being dumped by the girlfriend he came all the way to Europe to be with.
We discover the very different inner worlds of the pair through long conversations that, unlike the films of dialogue fans such as Hal Hartley, sound for all the world as though they’re being improvised on the spot. “I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood,” Celine tells Jesse at one point, “and not making it look like my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone and being loved means so much to me. I always make fun of it and stuff… but isn’t everything we’re doing in life a way to be loved a little more?”
Vienna obviously doesn't go for dark, dank alleyways...
The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is undeniably there on the screen, and both actors are superb as they wander through the beauty and history of Vienna (the film was shot on location there, co-financed by an Austrian company). Where it all ends up is hardly standard Hollywood fare, the open-ended conclusion one of the least patronising endings in an American film in recent years. The fact that Linklater has just finished filming an as-yet-untitled sequel with Hawke and Delpy might seem like something of a spoiler, but trust us, it isn’t - and if the filmmaker can capture this wonderful, gentle reality a second time, then the sequel might turn out to be one of the greatest joys of 2004. Only time will tell.
Before Sunrise is sometimes talked about as having been a “box office failure”; on the contrary, it actually turned a small profit theatrically in the US (having cost a paltry $2.5 million to make) and worldwide managed to gross ten times its budget at the box office. That makes it, in proportional terms, more successful than Titanic. Perhaps that’s not surprising - after all, as a romance it beats that world-conquering blockbuster hands down.
Warner has been doing wonderful things recently with their back catalogue, offering solid 16:9 transfers of older films at bargain prices - and Before Sunrise is no exception. Released on DVD in the US a couple of years ago, this transfer is now available in a PAL incarnation and while it’s not right up there with the state of the art by any means, it’s very watchable and surprisingly good considering the film’s pre-DVD-era status and miniscule budget.
Anamorphically enhanced and with the matte opened up slightly to 1.78:1 to fill the 16:9 frame, the transfer uses a very clean source, with the occasional white fleck on screen the only real distraction (and these are not prevalent enough to bother anyone except DVD reviewers and pedants - arguably the same thing!) Colours are generally desaturated, but the odd scene with intensely saturated colours - reds and oranges, mostly - indicates that the film was intended to look this way. While the image is a teensy bit soft at times, this isn’t a problem - the overall effect is very film-like, and there is no hint of digital edge enhancement applied anywhere. The only down side is the black level and shadow detail in a couple of very dark scenes, where objects (and occasionally actors) disappear into the gloom.
Video encoding is first-rate, without a problem to be seen anywhere. The 97-minute film takes up almost all the available space on a single-layered DVD.
While the film was released theatrically with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (complete with old-fashioned Dolby SR-D logo in the end credits), the sole soundtrack offered here is a matrixed Dolby Surround effort (flagged appropriately on the disc, as surround tracks always are on Warner product). While this is slightly disappointing, in practise it’s not that much of an impairment to what is a decidedly dialogue-heavy film. Fidelity is excellent (the frequent classical music on the soundtrack is evidence enough of that) as is clarity of the dialogue, and played back through a Dolby Pro Logic processor this track could easily fool most people into thinking they were hearing a multichannel soundtrack.
There’s absolutely nothing at all in the way of extras on this DVD - not even a trailer (which the US release did have). But we won’t hear of any complaining about that fact, because this is one of Warner’s range of under-$12 back-catalogue releases. Yes, that’s right, a measly $12 - and you’re bound to find it cheaper at discount stores. Whatever complaints we’ve had about Warner in recent times, it seems like there’s someone on board there who’s determined to make things right - and this pricing policy is a superb start. Compare the local $12 price to the “budget” tag on the US release (US$19.95) and be amazed.
Richard Linklater’s warm, unutterably romantic Before Sunrise is a superb achievement - a gentle and intelligent film suffused with the shimmer and glow of real life. Linklater might be king of the US box office right now with the megahit comedy The School of Rock (which he didn’t write), but we’ve got a feeling that it’s wonderful films like Before Sunrise that he’ll be remembered for.
Sporting very good video and decent audio, at a mere $12 retail this one’s a bargain. Don’t hesitate to grab a copy.