At my parent’s house, I recycle the same clothes to sleep and lay around in. I spend my waking hours scanning the internet for respite from the news, in the form of film recommendations and reading lists; I dutifully ignore the rolling calendar notifications for shifts at a job to which I haven’t been since March.
Last night was another evening spent in my parent’s company. We had just finished the final episodes of the two series we were watching in simultaneity. After saying goodnight, I went up to my bedroom with the knowledge that, suspended from their presence, I would begin my routine of watching films until my brain glazes over, before eventually giving in to sleep.
I was laying on my bed, in view of the trinkets littering my bookcases, feeling half-connected to them yet jettisoned by four years of distant and international study. I don’t know why on this particular evening I felt like watching it, but I felt a sense of urgency to watch Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. I had only seen this film one time prior, in Budapest on one quiet evening of a holiday. At the time, I was nineteen, and certain that Julie Delpy had the most beautiful hair I had ever seen, a close successor to Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. Watching again, my conviction remains.
Something I had forgotten is that the film begins with a rather classical montage of a locomotive train. Much like antecedent silent films, laden heavy with metaphors of machinery, the opening sequence, teemed with a wistful score, exhibits much of the same urbanised, situating imagery. It made me yearn for travel, a luxury still largely prohibited or at least unreasonable, and it made me anticipate the film’s exceptional sense of movement, about which I had mostly forgotten.
Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved rewatching Jesse and Celine meet on the train, and the way they awkwardly introduce themselves with what book they're reading. I love when the train arrives in Vienna and when Jessie revokes his departure and finds Celine gazing out the carriage window, in the hope of seeing him on the platform. I love that Jesse's persuasion to Celine is that if they alight together they avoid ‘what ifs’ down the line with their respective partners. I love how even to those who haven’t seen it, because of the film’s poster, we are fully aware that Celine must say yes and they must spend the night together, in order to arrive at the poster's iconic caress. It is thus no surprise whatsoever that Celine alights with Jesse, even to a first time viewer. But nevertheless, during my first revisit to this film, I was warmed anew witnessing the inevitable.
During the few moments I was not entranced by their body language, I looked beyond Jesse and Celine and fell in love with Vienna. It was during the realistically unimportant encounter with two amateur actors on the bridge that I realised that Before Sunrise is really a masterwork of affective space; an ode to the possibility of cities and the interactivity they promise. Though it could perhaps be any European city, it just so happens that I have not visited Vienna myself, thus for me, Vienna is a noticeably enamouring element of the film. Its enchanting veneer rouses a sense of anonymity; Jesse and Celine’s personal musings and secrets are drowned out by the hum of the unfamiliar environment, and the metropolitan lull inspires conversations of the abstract.
By design, at least within the film’s imagining, it is though the Viennese streets are carved out especially for Jesse and Celine's wandering, but carved in such a way that the streets do not dissipate as their footprints fade. Into the darkening, lilac evening, they advance to wherever their feet take them; to wherever the music of their conversation carries them, and we are utterly enthralled to watch each second of their undaunted experience.
Eventually, Vienna comes to represent how fleeting their connection is: their synchronisation is reduced to the extraordinariness of their kiss on the Riesenrad; to the escapism of Kath Bloom’s vocals in the listening booth of the record store; to the blur of life and death in the graveyard; to the haze and specificity of a café; to the duration of a meal.
Of course, knowledge of the trilogy contradicts this ephemerality; the entwined lives of Jesse and Celine constitute two successive films. But to take this film for what it is, an exercise I believe to be essential to benefit from its stand-alone escapism, one must believe that Jesse and Celine’s experience of Vienna, and each other, is predicated by a deadline. Although their deep and transcendent conversations indicate blissful ignorance, they are fully aware that their night together will come to an end; their experience of Vienna, so inflected by the other, will cease to be.
In lieu of plot, by the strictest convention, Linklater lays bare an excess of time and duration. There is an abundance of figurative space for Jesse and Celine to orient their own and each other’s thoughts, that which they have never expressed before drifting along the Viennese cobblestones on June 16th, in the company of a stranger.
It is a satisfying detail that the narrative takes place on June 16th, a date synonymous with Bloomsday: the honouring of modernist author James Joyce, famous for his innovative real-time, stream-of-consciousness literary stylings. I think there is something magical in how disparate this film feels, yet bound firmly and indebted to the artistic world which made it possible.
It’s now morning. I fell asleep and missed the end of the film, but I woke feeling reposed. I’m glad I didn’t make it to the end, that I didn’t allow the credits to finalise such a timely experience. The credits would have actuated the end of an interaction I yearned for, and love to yearn for. I think I love the experience of watching this film more than my direct consumption of it. I love the experience of piecing together its nuance and affectations; I love the theatrics of two strangers on a train; I love how even if this film didn't exist, it would exist somewhere as an idea or a feeling, far into our subconscious desires.
I think the mastery of this film is its universality and watchable ease. I could watch it on a loop, as background noise to my day-to-day. It yields something discernibly vivid yet far from heavy; there’s a lightness to it, felt sincerely and warmly by everything it touches.
One day, I’ll go back to Before Sunrise and make it to the end. Maybe the feeling of finality is something I’m saving for later, for a time when life feels mobilised and logical again. But for now, nourished by its transience, I’ll gladly wait.