"For the first time, while watching a romance movie, I didn’t need to see it to believe it — the love and affection were there." Colette Bernheim talks Richard Linklater's 1995 modern classic.
Quarantine saw me watching films non-stop. Although I’ve now broken my flow, I’d regularly watch a movie or two a day, opening my eyes to films both old and new. One spring morning, I scrolled through my Letterboxd watchlist and saw the title of a movie I had still yet to see. I spent the next hour and a half getting goosebumps and beaming through tears while admiring the beautiful story. That film was none other than Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise. The drama follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) as they spend 24 hours together in Vienna, having only met on a train that morning. Jesse, an American, is flying out of Vienna to go back home after spending a month on the trains, and Céline is returning to university in Paris. They immediately acknowledge their bond, and throughout the film, their heartfelt exchanges reflect the power of human connection.
Having grown up in a household where music was treated like a second language, I always pay close attention to music supervision and the placement of music in film. In Before Sunrise, one of the most critical moments occurs when Jesse and Céline wander into a record store and listen to folk artist Cath Bloom’s “Come Here” in the listening room. As the song plays, the two look at each other––only, when Jesse looks at Céline, she intently looks away, as Jesse does when she looks at him. At this point, nothing romantic has happened between them, but the tension is evocative and almost haunting. I rewatched this scene last week and was immediately reminded of how romantically charged it was. Watching them look at each other for the first time brought such a smile to my face. My initial joyous reaction speaks to the larger takeaway of the film: the desire for that realistic but intimate connection with someone. In many ways, this scene alone proved that notion possible to me, especially since nothing sexual had yet occurred between Jesse and Céline. I knew that, even if nothing ended up happening, I could look back at this moment and remember that genuine feeling of closeness between them. Psychologist Lori H. Gordon explains that “most communication between intimates is nonverbal.” If that really is so, what Jesse and Céline experience in the listening booth is truly intimate.
For the first time, while watching a romance movie, I didn’t need to see it to believe it — the love and affection were there.
Upon my first viewing, I noticed a detail about Before Sunrise that I had rarely seen in other films: the majority of the script was just conversation. Questions, big and seemingly irrational ideas, and reflections on their lives and love were at the very center of the plot. In a way, that element alone made Before Sunrise feel truly real. When the film began, I expected a “meet-cute”—which can technically describe their meeting. But the development of their “meet-cute” is so far from conventional as their relationship blossoms out of their intimate conversations. This element is really what makes Before Sunrise the perfect romance film. A little over halfway through the film, Jesse and Céline perform make-believe phone calls with their friends from home. In both of their “conversations,” they express both the strange serendipity in their meeting as well as how elated they are to have bumped into each other — all while forming telephones with their hands. Perhaps the most memorable line from this scene is Céline revealing “I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away.” Her eyes stay down, Jesse’s eyes stay lovingly gazing at her, and the pair both chuckle quietly. The scene adds another layer of intimacy, and their connection is further elevated.
By definition, romance films “...center on passion, emotion, and the romantic, affectionate involvement of the main characters.” This is only partially true of Before Sunrise. There is a significant focus on Jesse and Céline’s affection towards one another, and there are many moments of passion. Early in the film, while on the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel, the two kiss, growing closer as a result. Prior to this, when they were in the music store and during the telephone scene, their chemistry was undeniable. But that idea of romantic involvement, more specifically, only really happens following an implied sexual encounter at the end of the film. What feels truly special about Jesse and Celine’s romance is that the viewers actually never see their intimate moment in action — the camera pans upwards, and what follows is left to the viewer’s imagination. Despite this, audiences aren’t left feeling deflated or detached from the scene. For the first time, while watching a romance movie, I didn’t need to see it to believe it — the love and affection were there. And at the very end, when Jesse and Céline make a promise to meet again in six months, there is a flame between them unlike ever before. They kiss passionately before Céline leaves for Paris, and the promise of their reunion hangs hopefully in the air. To me, that is romantic.
To this day, I still don’t know exactly what makes me go back and watch this film over and over again. I hardly rewatch movies out of wanting to preserve my initial feelings associated with them, but Before Sunrise is a rare exception. I’ve watched it at my desk, at 3:30 am during an insomnia-filled evening, and on a New York street corner through my phone. Like the ending, Before Sunrise as a whole film leaves me hopeful as I venture out into the world both as a young adult and as a romantic. It has taught me that when you connect with someone so instantly and authentically, what can come out of it can be real and magical. I also understood how much can be learned about oneself through both that connection with someone and the spontaneity in our decisions as a result. I don’t expect a Before Sunrise moment to happen exactly as shown, but that deep bond and chemistry don’t feel so impossible now. ✴
Colette Bernheim is a New York City-based artist, activist, and student. Specializing in photography and writing, she attends Sarah Lawrence College and studies art history, film, philosophy, and whatever else she might be drawn to. She is a staff writer at Lithium Magazine, primarily focusing on film, culture, and politics, and the art director at Unpublished Magazine. Outside of writing or capturing moments on her camera, she loves watching movies (and writing Letterboxd reviews), drawing inspiration from Patti Smith and Joan Didion, long walks with friends, perusing used book stores, and listening to Is This It over and over again.