After reading a review by my friend Katy Rochelle from Girl Meets Cinema (you can see her review here), I finally decided to pick up a DVD copy of Before Sunrise. The result I would say is everything I had been told and possibly a little bit more. The only trouble is I still have a tendency to mix up the titles of all three movies.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine, two young lovers of very different national backgrounds who by complete chance end up sitting together on the same train. They start talking but the train reaches Jesse's destination of Vienna (which is in Austria, not in Italy; apparently that's a common misconception). He has a flight back to America the following morning and invites Celine to come with him to see Vienna for the evening. She agrees and the rest of the movie is their interactions as they explore various parts of the city. They raise questions about what it means to be in love and try to have a great time before they have to leave each other in the morning.
Really, when you get down to it, it is the interactions between the two characters that really drives the film. Both leads deliver exceptional performances and play off of each other to great effect, which is good because Jesse and Celine are really the only major characters in the film. They encounter various other people but none of them are really anything more than a background role for the central relationship.
There is not a single scene that goes by without at least one of them having something meaningful to say, but it never feels forced, rushed, or overly drawn out. The movie takes its time when it needs to but scenes never go on longer than necessary. In fact, if anything the way these two people play off of each other makes it all the more compelling. It's a bit like what I've suggested made My Dinner With Andre work so well: the simple interactions between two characters with very different personalities (and in this case, also from two different countries) is enough to drive the story.
Of course, the acting alone doesn't carry a film, but I can't name any specific flaws with the movie itself. The script works surprisingly well, with just the right balance of comedy and drama. There are lighter more humorous moments and other points that are more serious, and even a few in between, but it never goes too far one way or the the other.
The direction and cinematography are spot on, creating the perfect sort of atmosphere. Despite the minimalist structure the film also takes full advantage of its setting. As you can expect from a movie set in a location like Vienna, there is lots and lots of great scenery, both as backgrounds and for our two protagonists to explore.
This is definitely a movie I would recommend to anyone, even if like me you're not immediately drawn towards romance. As I'd always heard, it is so simple, but at the same time just so emotionally investing. It is a well-crafted film centered around two characters with wonderful chemistry, and almost certainly a must-see for any film buff.
I am curious to see where the sequels will go with these two characters, and whatever happens I'm looking forward to it. However, if they ever make a fourth one I can't help wondering what they'd call it. They're running out of times of day and "Before Noon" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.