I will listen to a lot of different kinds of comments about a lot of different kinds of movies, but the one that I won’t listen to, the one that is practically guaranteed to make me angry, is “nothing happens.” Something happens in every movie. Even in the most misguided, Mystery Science Theater 3000-worthy, boring piece of junk, things happen. They might be badly paced, they might have no tension, or the things that are happening may just be flat-out boring, but things are always happening.
This is relevant because I’ve previously heard the “nothing happens” criticism about this week’s movie, Richard Linklater’s 1995 effort Before Sunrise, and it could not be more wrong.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is riding a train to Vienna when he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), who is heading to Paris. He’s intrigued enough by her that he invites her to stay the night in Vienna with him, but they cannot afford a hotel, so they just wander the streets, taking in whatever entertainment they can find until the next day’s sunrise. The film follows their conversations as they get to know each other and start an uneasy romance.
The “nothing happens” complaint about this movie usually comes from people who are expecting more conflict in their movies. Even if they don’t want fistfights or explosions, they might be expecting a big argument or some such. Before Sunrise doesn’t even have that much, but that doesn’t mean it lacks conflict. Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan are good at crafting conversations that lead in a direction, so that even though no one is shouting at anyone else, you still want to know where it ends up. Just the fact that they can’t keep this relationship going the next day is a conflict, but there’s more than that.
We’ve become so inured to Hollywood’s ideas of turbo love – from utter indifference to instant devotion in the time it takes to end Act 1 – that we forget that falling in love is a conflict in and of itself. It’s a thing that takes time and more than a little effort on the part of both people. There were a couple of occasions where Jesse said something that I thought was kind of asinine, and that Celine would start a fight with him right on the spot over it, because that’s how movies go. But in reality it almost never works that way; sometimes the fight comes later, or not at all, and sometimes people fall in love regardless of the jerkish things that one of them might say.
In some ways this movie defies analysis because it is about things that cannot and should not be analyzed. It’s about why people would give money to a palm reader, and how they explain that to someone who thinks it’s a scam. It’s about how you can be honest with a girl while trying to get her to kiss you at the same time, even while she may be aware that you’re just using a line. The conversations that Celine and Jesse have are stand-ins for the real issues: why do people fall in love, and how does that love have meaning when we know it’s finite?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a person who always wants movies to be exactly like real life. Sometimes the fantasy is better: sometimes we want a punch in a fight scene to sound like “whap!”, sometimes we want the cop to fire ten shots out of a six-cylinder revolver without reloading, and sometimes we want love at first sight and meet-cutes to be the way that love works. But sometimes you want the reality, and with respect to romance, Before Sunrise delivers that reality as well as any movie you can find.
Reviewed by Mark Young