Representations of Travel Narrative in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
April 19, 2013
Sometime in the warmer months of 2003, first-time American author Jesse Wallace visits 10 cities in 12 days on the European leg of his book tour. The book, This Time, described by the author as a “tiny bestseller” in the United States, tells the story of a young man and a young woman meeting on a train and spending one night walking around Vienna together before separating at sunrise.
On the last stop of his book tour, Jesse spends a night at Shakespeare and Company, the fabled English-language bookshop of Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald’s expatriate Paris. The next day, the bookshop hosts a reading of This Time, followed by a Q&A session with Jesse and three French reporters as well as a few onlookers. It is in the middle of this Q&A session that the 2004 film Before Sunset begins, with the first line of dialogue in the film spoken by the lone female reporter: “Do you consider the book to be autobiographical?”
What follows is 1 hour and 20 minutes of seamless, “real-time” travel narrative, in which Jesse and the inspiration for the female character in his novel, a French woman named Céline, walk around Paris and relive the temporally limited adventure they shared nine years earlier. Instead of an overnight stop in Vienna—where, before sunrise, Jesse catches a bus to the airport and Céline boards the next train to Paris—the pair’s time together in Paris takes place in the early evening, but it is once again restricted by Jesse’s chauffeured drive to the airport—this time, before sunset.
Before Sunrise is the independent film by Richard Linklater, staring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, set in 1994 and released in 1995. It has been described by Hawke as “the smallest grossing film of all time to ever garner a sequel” (Shone). The indie favourite of Gen-X backpackers sees its plot mirrored by This Time, the novel written by Hawke’s character in Before Sunset, nine years later. With the film Before Sunrise effectively doubled in the novel This Time, albeit through Jesse’s eyes and marketed as “officially fiction,” Before Sunset quickly brings the viewer up to speed and is able to use dialogue about the book to reference its own cinematic predecessor.
The memorable scenes of the first film are rapidly cut with Jesse’s opening-scene Q&A session to remind fans of the first film and bring new viewers up to speed. Just like Before Sunrise, This Time “ends on an ambiguous note,” as the female reporter observes, with the lovers bidding farewell at the train station and promising to meet again in six months. The narrative of the first film is faithfully reflected in This Time, although Jesse soon reveals to Céline that his original manuscript concluded with a fictitious ending, which his editor rejected.
As published, This Time retains the same ending as Before Sunrise: the couple decides to meet again at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, “Six months from last night, which was…June 16th. So…track nine, six months from now at six o’clock, at night,” which Jesse commits to memory in the last seconds before Céline boards her train. This parting scene reveals that the couple met on Bloom’s Day, the calendar date celebrated in James Joyce’s “real-time” narrative, Ulysses. The six-month arrangement also evokes a similar agreement between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, leading New York Times film critic Janet Maslin to refer to Before Sunrise as “the Eurailpass version of An Affair to Remember” (Maslin, NYT).
The three journalists at the book reading in Before Sunset are embodiments of viewer reaction to the cliff-hanger of the first film: the female believes the couple met again, the older male is sure they did not, and the younger male is hopeful but not sure. Yet there is one more possibility, as the late academic and film critic Robin Wood articulates in a 1998 study of the first film and sexual politics: “that one will and the other won’t.” Indeed, this is ultimately what happens, although the circumstances surrounding the missed connection absolve the absent party from blame—in a vein similar to Deborah Kerr’s car accident in An Affair to Remember.
Before Sunset picks up the story again, nine years later, effectively melding Before Sunrise and This Time into a single narrative, which create an easy transition for the viewer. During the opening scene of Before Sunset, Jesse’s work-in-progress ramblings about the plot of his next book echo the nearly nonsensical solo-traveller observations he spouted off for Céline when they first met in Before Sunrise. Jesse had been travelling alone around Europe—with an actual Eurail pass—isolated by language barriers and the heartache he had carried with him since breaking up with his American girlfriend in Madrid. Céline represented the first person he had genuinely been able to talk to in weeks, bonding through their disapproval of a squabbling German couple, on his last night travelling through Europe.
Back in 1994, Jesse had evoked the Eurail ethos when he told Céline, “…sitting, you know, for weeks on end, looking out the window has actually been kinda great… you have ideas that you ordinarily wouldn’t have” before explaining an idea for a television show that had struck him for a type of reality television (which sounds oddly prescient for 1994/1995, albeit from an actor who had just become famous in a film called Reality Bites). In 2003’s Before Sunset, Jesse’s verbal sketches of his idea for a new novel contain the phrase “it’s all happening at the same time.” This is when the viewers see Céline in two quick cuts: first, in Jesse’s mental photograph of her from one of the final scenes of the first film, nine years earlier; and then again, in the present, standing near la Chine libre shelf of Shakespeare and Company. The viewer learns—just a few delicious seconds before Jesse—that Céline has come to hear him read from This Time.
It becomes apparent in Jesse’s reaction that the two have not seen each other in a while; this separation becomes more evident as they escape the prying eyes of the reporters in the bookshop and get a chance to talk. In the second locale of the film, as Céline and Jesse walk from the bookstore to a coffee shop on their seamless journey through Paris, they quickly broach the subject that has been on everyone’s mind since 1994/1995: did the couple meet again?
Within five minutes of their reunion, the pair has explored the alternative narratives presented by the end of the first film and, by extension, Jesse’s book. Because of the phrasing of her question, the viewer immediately knows that Céline did not show up. However, she had a legitimate excuse in the funeral of her grandmother, the one she had been visiting in Budapest, which took place on the same day. There is a full minute where Jesse pretends he did not show up either, and Céline briefly grows angry with him, before she and the audience learn the truth—that it was Jesse waiting in Vienna alone. He goes on to give a few light-hearted details of the experience, although the full impact of his disappointment will unravel throughout the rest of the film.
Céline was unaware of Jesse’s cold night in Vienna waiting for her because his fictionalized account of the night ended at the same time as Before Sunrise. Neither Céline nor the audience really knew what had happened, but Jesse did, and he is the one who has assumed control of the story at the beginning of the second film. Perhaps in an attempt to sublimate the devastation he must have felt, Jesse has written an entire novel about the events of June 16, 1994. He tells Céline that he had written an ending where the girl does show up (knowing, in his real-life experience, that she did not), which depicts a “more realistic” arc for the relationship: 10 days of passion before the two get to know one another and decide to part ways for good.
Céline’s inability to keep their date, though suitably tragic enough to absolve her from any blame, raises the issue of travel as an obstacle to the relationship. As Jesse says in the farewell scene of Before Sunrise, “It’s a train ride for you, but I’ve gotta fly all the way over here and shit like that.” Jesse, more so than Céline, is the traveller in the story. In Before Sunrise, Céline is returning from a visit to her grandmother in Budapest (they were obviously close and Céline must have visited frequently), and has toured Vienna before as a teenager. In Before Sunrise, she actually lives in Paris.
If the films can be perceived as flirting with the time-space continuum—the imagery is concerned with location, while the narratives, as indicated by the titles Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are limited by questions of temporality (even Jesse’s novel is called This Time)—then Jesse represents movement through space, while Céline represents movement through time. Although each character, in certain scenes, addresses questions of time or location, primarily, Jesse is the traveller and Céline is concerned with time.
The audience is aware that Céline travels, and extensively. Not only is she European and depicted as more cultured and linguistically flexible than Jesse, but her father is an architect who took his family to building sites all over the world, and 32-year-old Céline travels frequently for her job as an environmentalist. However, in the brief timeframes depicted in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Céline remains very close to home, and acts as something of a tour guide for Jesse. In fact, the final scene of Before Sunset ends in the personal sanctuary Céline’s apartment, while Jesse is still a transcontinental flight away from his home and obligations.
In the transcript of an interview conducted by Tom Shone, the film columnist for The Guardian, Ethan Hawke explains how he and Julie Delpy hit upon the dialogue that convinces Céline to get off the train with Jesse: “We had this long day of doing controlled improvs about what a person might say that would work […] We finally came up with this idea that I was a time-traveller. She was like… ‘okay that I would get off the train for.’ We were like: yaay. We knew we had it” (Shone).
The act of time travel Jesse and Céline engage in during Before Sunrise is described by Jesse as “a gigantic favor” to Céline’s future husband: experiencing one of life’s what-ifs (Jesse) so she won’t look back later in life and wonder how things could have been. This question comes up several times in Before Sunrise: when Céline tells Jesse about her first love, a swimmer she met at camp with whom she vowed to keep in touch but soon disappeared from her life; when Céline recounts her grandmother’s confession of living her whole life in love with a man who was not her husband; and, of course, in the overall question of the first film and Jesse’s novel This Time: is this love a one-time event, or could it possibly go the distance?
Perhaps, like the narrative that gives them life, Jesse and Céline can pick up where they left off:
But of course a lot has changed, and the film is full of subliminal reminders — the flowing waters of the Seine, the shadows that lengthen in the golden Parisian light, the implacable movement of celluloid through the projector — that time runs in one direction, and eventually runs out. In Vienna, in their early 20’s, Jesse and Céline had all the time in the world, and the hours of the night slowed down to accommodate their endless desires. Now, in their 30’s, they are fighting against the clock.
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Through the constant motion of the films, whether it involves modes of transport that allow the characters to remain stationary—the train that inspires such deep thoughts from Jesse, the tram where the couple plays a game of Q&A (with Jesse adopting a Freudian accent in honor of the Austrian setting), the Ferris wheel overlooking Vienna that slowly turns while Jesse moves in for his first kiss with Céline in Before Sunrise; as well as the boat along the Seine and the chauffeured vehicle in Before Sunset—or the characters’ own self-propelled mobility as they walk around Vienna and Paris, what unites Jesse and Céline is the fact that they are constantly moving in the same direction within a predetermined and well-defined time limit. This is not a sustainable relationship; as Wood observes in his analysis of the end of Before Sunrise: “there are simply too many of those mundane obstacles, too many highly unromantic practical questions (about money, work, travel, distance, where to live…) that seem trivial “before sunrise” but will begin to loom very large after it as time passes” (Wood, 322).
In Before Sunset, Céline muses: “Maybe we’re only good at brief encounters… walking around in European cities… in warm climate,” playing to filmgoers’ awareness of the basic tension underlying the narrative. Is the connection between Céline and Jesse real, or just a product of the experience of spatial and temporal displacement that occurs once every nine years? A third interpretation has to consider that the emotions and relationships forged during times of travel can outlast the temporary circumstances that created them and grow strong enough to endure everyday life.
In fact, one feature of travel, especially travel that involves public transport and urban spaces, is that the traveller inevitably encounters other travellers. In his solitary travel experience, Jesse explored creative pursuits that went nowhere, like his TV show; after meeting Céline, he underwent a travel experience so rich and meaningful that he spent four years, “on and off,” writing a book to put creative expression to the events of one night. A palm-reader tells Céline that she is “an adventurer, a seeker,” and although she has not travelled as far as Jesse, she is open to the experience of at least getting off the train with him in Before Sunrise. The very act of travel and the decision to make a journey indicates a curiosity about the world that others recognize and admire.
At the end of Before Sunset, the audience learns that Céline has also given artistic expression to their shared experience. If Jesse did in fact write the book to find Céline, as he seems to discover during the course of their walk around Paris, Céline has a more private way of expressing her thoughts about the night, which proves just as seductive as Jesse’s book. Céline reveals that she has three songs in English that she plays on her guitar, and she gives Jesse the option to pick which he wants to hear. Between a song about her cat, a song about her ex-boyfriend, and a waltz that provokes a dreamy, reluctant smile from Céline, Jesse chooses the waltz.
The song includes no mention of travel; at least, not on the part of the singer. She starts, “Let me sing you waltz, about this one-night stand,” and refers to “that night” and “just another try.” The singer is stationary; the object of her affection is the traveller: “But now you’re gone / you are forgone / back to your island of rain.” The song belatedly contains Jesse’s name; he is the traveller, and her song is both sadder and more committed to their love than the ambiguity of his novel, if nowhere near as public. Céline tells Jesse earlier in their Paris walk: “I didn’t write a whole book about it, but I remember that night,” and it slowly becomes clear just how often she thinks about it.
In response to Céline’s song, titled “A Waltz for One Night,” Jesse browses through her CD collection (in a shot that includes, but never overtly references, a clipped article about Jesse’s book This Time hanging on Céline’s bookshelf). He chooses a live recording of “Just in Time” by Nina Simone. The dialogue of the film fades into a tangential conversation about Simone in concert, while the woman herself sings the words “My bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go / Now you’re here, now I know just where I’m going.”
Just as Céline’s true feelings about Jesse only become apparent as she sings “A Waltz for One Night,” Linklater uses Simone’s music in the film to express something the characters cannot. The American artist with strong ties to France sings of the hopelessness Céline and Jesse have both alluded to in discussion of their lives, and offers a solution “Just in Time.” The film ends on another ambiguous note, but one that is slightly more mature and self-assured than either Before Sunset or This Time:
Céline: Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.
Jesse: I know.
In January of 2013, a third instalment in the series, Before Midnight, premiered at Sundance Film Festival, followed by screenings at Berlin International Film Festival and South by Southwest film conference in Austin. The film is set for wide release on May 24 in the States. In his interview with Shone, Hawke addressed some criticisms of the films as well as how to continue the story:
I think it’s one of the things I want to get into the film is an acknowledgement of — and this is everybody’s struggle — how do you keep your innocence alive. How do you keep your sense of romance alive? Your sense of joy alive. But match it with realism, to get rid of all the fake naivete. To see the world for what it is, reality for what it is. It’s a very difficult aspect of life. What do you do?”[…] I’ve got to stop talking about this. I got an email from Rick. I’ve got to shut the fuck up. He thinks it’s a real problem. People can’t walk into the movie knowing too much — people who love it. We want to hit them with the real thing.”
Ethan Hawke, interview with Tom Shone
Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. By Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. Perf. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Columbia, 1995.
Before Sunset. By Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke. Perf. Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Vernon Dobtcheff. Warner Home Video, 2004.
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“Ethan Hawke on ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘Before Sunset’ and beyond.” Interview by Tom Shone. These Violent Delights. Blogger, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2013. <http://tomshone.blogspot.ie/2012/01/ethan-hawke-on-before-sunrise-sunset.html>.
Maslin, Janet. “Strangers on a Train and Soul Mates for a Night.” Rev. of Before Sunrise. The New York Times 27 Jan. 1995: n. pag. Print.
Norton, Glen. “The Seductive Slack of Before Sunrise.” Post Script. 19.2 (2000): 62-72. Print.
Scott, A. O. “Reunited, Still Talking, Still Uneasy.” Rev. of Before Sunset. The New York Times 2 July 2004: n. pag. Print.
Shone, Tom. “Ethan Hawke: ‘Nothing Went the Way I Thought It Would'” The Guardian [London] 8 Feb. 2012: n. pag. Print.
Speed, Lesley. “The Possibilities of Roads Not Taken: Intellect and Utopia in the Films of Richard Linklater.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 35.3 (2007): 98-106. Print.
Wood, Robin. Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.