Before Sunrise Review

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet by chance in Vienna and spend the day and night together in Richard Linklater’s 1995 cult favourite Before Sunrise. Gary Couzens reviews the Region 2 release which is available singly or in a box set with its sequel Before Sunset. The DVD picture and sound are good, but extras are sparse.

1994, on a train approaching Vienna. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, meets Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy). He’s due to disembark at Vienna for his flight home the next day, but his brief conversation with Celine persuades him that he’d like to get to know her better. He persuades her to spend the rest of the day and night with him in the city…

Richard Linklater has made films for major studios, most successfully The School of Rock, less so The Newton Boys. But he began as an independent and he remains true to his roots, making small-scale and often narratively experimental films in between his more remunerative assignments. Like Eric Rohmer (a clear influence on the Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset) he loves nothing better than to have his characters talk, filming them as unobtrusively as possible. He understands that dialogue, if it’s good dialogue, can be just as cinematic as the flashiest camera moves. From his earliest films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused he’s often been more interested in character rather than tight plotting. In the absence of much “happening” on the surface, his films work as a series of moments – happy moments, sad ones, romantic ones, some with a beauty it’s not easy to put into words. Sometimes these moments don’t even involve any dialogue: look at the scene in Before Sunrise where Jesse and Celine play a record in a listening booth, a scene that’s entirely conveyed by the two actors’ facial expressions and body language. Hawke and Delpy are pitch perfect, and importantly you can sense the chemistry between them. Linklater’s direction and his long-term DP Lee Daniel’s photography are self-effacing, so much so that even a simple crane shot seems showy.

So we follow Jesse and Celine around Vienna as they talk about each other’s lives and what they believe in. This is a romantic film, to be sure, but the romance is made much more poignant because we know that Celine and Jesse will have to part in the morning. This is a film where the romance is intensified by a knowledge of its inevitable ending. Before Sunrise is a film about making the most of a short time, about two people realising that they are in the middle of one of the best days and nights of their lives and trying to get it right without messing up. This is a film that is somewhat out of its time by being unashamedly about the process of falling in love, and only incidentally about the act of making love. Not many films make me want to be twenty-five again, but this is one of them.

Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset are available either separately or as a two-disc box set. I suspect most people who would want to buy one would also want to buy the other, so for that reason the affiliate links in this review are for the box set.
The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1. The film was shot on a low-budget, so it doesn’t look as slick and sharp as a major studio production might…which is all to the better as far as I’m concerned. The colours have an appealing muted look. The transfer is a little soft and shadow detail, especially in the later night-time scenes, could be better. But for most people this transfer would be more than adequate for its purpose.

Similarly, this is not a disc with which to demonstrate your sound system. The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital surround-encoded 2.0 track, either in the original English or French and Italian dubbed versions. Some brief German dialogue exchanges are intentionally not subtitled. As this is a very dialogue-driven film, the sound is pretty much from the centre speaker throughout, with the surrounds occasionally being used for ambience, such as in the opening sequence on the train. There are twenty-five chapter stops. The disc is encoded for Regions 2, 4 and 5.

Extras are disappointingly sparse: only the trailers for Before Sunrise (1:37) and Before Sunset (2:22). The former is 1.78:1 anamorphic with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track; the latter is 1.85:1 non-anamorphic with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Inevitably, the latter trailer contains spoilers for the former film. That’s all well and good, but where’s a Linklater commentary at the very least?

Before Sunrise epitomises a certain kind of cult film: not one that set the box office alight (though it made its small budget back) and certainly too “talky” for a wide audience. But it’s a film that people discover, and fall in love with. This DVD presents it well enough, but you can’t help hoping for a special edition sometime in the future.


Updated: Feb 26, 2005

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Before Sunrise Review | The Digital Fix