Before Sunrise: A Fantasy Film

I was in Vienna a few weeks ago and being a film geek I had to, you know, walk around town retracing the footsteps of film characters, most importantly Harry Lime from The Third Man (1949) and Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise (1995).

My friend Steve was with me in Vienna and was more interested in drinking fine Austrian beers and eating schnitzel than wandering around the city taking photos in front of obscure film locations. This is understandable. So I was alone as I stopped at the doorway of Schreyvogelgasse 8. This is the place where Orson Welles makes what Roger Ebert calls “the most dramatic entrance in the history of the cinema.” I stood by the door, touched it, then walked a few metres away to snap a photo, while patrons of a nearby cafe wondered aloud why someone might be photographing what appeared to be just another building in Vienna.

The doorway in The Third Man

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The photo I took, sans the dramatic Dutch angle

To be honest, though, I was even more eager to stop at some of the Before Sunrise locations. I appreciate The Third Man, but I love Before Sunrise. Personally I think it’s every bit the masterpiece that The Third Man is. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the greatest fantasy film ever made. Not romance. Not drama. Fantasy.

I didn’t watch Before Sunrise until sometime after I was married, a good ten years after it was released. I’m not sure how I would have responded to the film if I had seen as a teenager in 1995. All I know is that while I was aware of the movie for many years, I wasn’t really interested in seeing it because it appeared to be nothing but another romance film.

Looked like just another romance film to me.

The poster does this film a great injustice. I suppose it made sense to market the film as a conventional romance, rather than a film made up of two hours of dialogue. Eventually, though, the film kept popping up on lists of “greatest films of the 20th century.” I love lists. But what was so great about Before Sunrise? Why was this romantic film being singled out for it’s greatness? So, I checked it out and fell in love. So to speak.

Although the narrative revolves around young love, the appeal of the film is in the conversations between Jesse and Celine. Not only are the conversations deep, meaningful, and engaging, but they also appear plausible. We believe, at least I did, that these two people, Jesse and Celine, might actually exist, that he might actually convince her to get off the train with him, that they might actually be able to speak naturally and freely and with depth for such a sustained period of time, and that it’s entirely possible that the conversation might be of such profundity that they would fall in love, deep love, in just one evening. None of this withstands the critique of a rational mind, but for two hours, we believe it.

But this film is a fantasy. In its own way, it’s as constructed and unbelievable as Star Wars or Lord of Rings. It’s an illusion. Of course, romance, by its very nature, is a genre that leaves out the bad stuff, where it all works out in the end, where love is relatively easy, and so on. Most romance films present characters who are attracted to each other in more vulgar ways – the quality of another one’s posterior; a few cliched romantic gestures; the weeping woman chased down the street by the handsome man, etc. The characters in Before Sunrise have a physical attraction, but they are most attracted to each other’s minds. While other films may make passing reference to one character appreciating that another character “is smart,” in Before Sunrise, the notion of the sexy brain is the primary focus.

Because of the quality of the screenplay (by Linklater and Kim Krizan), and the naturalistic performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, we buy into it. We believe these characters exist, even if they don’t. This isn’t to say that people like them don’t exist, but that conversations in real life are seldom so perfect. Despite the appearance of improvisation, this was a film with a script, one that was written and rewritten and perfected. It was also a film in which the actors memorized and rehearsed and shot multiple takes. It’s a film after all. It was edited and constructed for effect.

In a 1974 short story called The Whore of Mensa, Woody Allen writes about a service where young women whore their minds to monied men. They are smart girls, selling intellectual conversation, rather than sex. The conversation is the object of desire. It is seen as something rare, something elusive, something not so easy to obtain, something you might even have to pay for. In contrast, Before Sunrise makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Although it doesn’t display the cynicism towards conversation that Woody Allen does, the Linklater film does contain subtle reminders of its artificiality. Jesse initiates the night with Celine by suggesting that getting off the train and walking around with him might be a bit “like time travel.” Later, when considering the possibility of a sexual encounter between the two of them, Celine rebuffs Jesse by saying, “No, then it’s like some male fantasy. Meet a French girl on the train, fuck her, and never see her again.” In this one line, Linklater and Krizan deconstruct Hollywood romance, while cleverly laying out a cynic’s view of the very film we are watching. Allusions to the fantastic continue. Later, Celine refers to Cinderella, when she suggests that in the morning, “we turn back into pumpkins.” Even the very nature of conversation is seen as “magic.” “If there’s any kind of magic in this world,” Celine says, “it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something.” And finally, when morning does arrive, Jesse comments that “we’re in real time again.” In other words, that evening before was, in a way, not real; it was a myth, a dream, a fantasy.

In the morning, we turn back into pumpkins.

Maybe sustained conversation of this sort is as elusive as Woody Allen suggests.

Before Sunrise, though, also contains great moments of silence. Time passes. This differs from Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1981), which contains one conversation in one place in more or less real time. The conversation in Before Sunrise isn’t non-stop. It’s broken up by movement, by interruptions from other people, by frequent shots of trains, and even by pinball. And, sometimes they just sit there and stare at each other. You know, like real people do. These elements of realism do nothing to displace this films status, in my mind, as pure fantasy. Scenes of silence help us continue to suspend our disbelief. We believe more firmly in the conversations between Celine and Jesse because they are bookended by scenes where they seemingly have nothing to say to each other; this seems to reflect our reality. Because there are times where they don’t talk at all, we are more likely to believe the moments (the vast majority of the film) where they do.

Perhaps the most famous and real moment in the film (and also my favourite scene) doesn’t contain any conversation at all. It’s the scene, relatively early in the film, where Celine and Jessie enter a record store and awkwardly attempt to suppress their desires while confined to the tight quarters of a listening booth.

I could write an entire blog post about that one scene; the music (Kath Bloom’s magnificent “Come Here”); the sustained shot with no edits; the subtleties of the actors’ facial expressions. What makes the scene, though, is that fact they don’t kiss. A Hollywood film by a mainstream director would never have passed up the opportunity to indulge the earthly passions of the two young lovers. They’d be climbing all over each other there in that listening booth. Here, though, they just stand there awkwardly. The fact they don’t kiss in the listening booth makes the scene when they finally do kiss in the ferris wheel (made famous in The Third Man), all the more effective.

I love the listening booth scene. It was one of the locations I sought out on my own little film locations tour of Vienna. But, of course, I tried to find them all. You know, like re-enact the film…by myself, stuffed with too much sachertorte and drenched in sweat from a summer heat-wave. Actually, maybe it was a good thing I was alone.

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The rooftop at the Albertina Museum.

I went to the church where Jesse tells the joke about the cruel atheist. I wandered along the embankment of the Danube Canal, and located the bridge where they meet the Austrian actors (“I’m the cow”). I had apple strudel and pretended to like coffee at Cafe Sperl (seen at the top of this post). I took the escalator behind the Albertina Museum for a view of Vienna that is instantly recognizable to fans of the film. But the record store from Before Sunrise–to me that was as important an attraction in Vienna as the Schonbrunn Palace.

Teuchtler Records is not hard to find. There are plenty of online resources for people seeking out film locations in various cities, and Before Sunrise is no exception. So I found the address. Windmuhlgasse 10. I looked up the nearest subway stop and google-mapped the steps I’d need to take to get there.

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Teuchtler Records

When I arrived it was little awkward. I guess I’m just an awkward sort of person. Did I intend to just walk inside and snap a photo? No, I had to at least pretend to look at the records. I do own a record player after all. It wasn’t entirely a facade. Had I found a nice old Joy Division album I’m sure I would have bought it. Then I thought, while browsing the records, I could purchase the Kath Bloom album. How cool would that be? Buy the Kath Bloom album in the very record store that made it famous. I asked. They didn’t have a copy. It’s pretty rare, they said. They only had this one copy under glass.

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I wasn’t able to buy a copy, but I could take this photo.

So after spending about twenty minutes pretending to browse the records, I finally mustered up the courage to take the camera out of my bag. I was probably a little demonstrative about it, because I had to make sure they didn’t think I was shoplifting what with all that bag-shuffling. Then I stood there, waited for people to move out of the way (I hate it when people get in my photos) and click. I got a photo from basically the angle that is seen in the film when Celine pulls the Kath Bloom LP out of the stack and suggests to Jesse they have a listen.

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My photo inside Teuchtler Records.

The same spot from the movie

But wait. Have a close look at these two photos. The photograph on the top, the one I took, has some sort of storage room in the back, while the photograph on the bottom has the listening booth. Yup, it’s gone. The listening booth is gone. Apparently they removed it a few years after the film was made.

My fantasy, my cinematic fantasy, that is, was smashed. Not to mention the fact that I had considerable trouble locating all the other film locations. I looked up the addresses and plotted them all out on a map, which proved absolutely necessary.  In the film, however, Celine and Jesse seem to spontaneously wander from dramatic location to dramatic location. For me, it was a little more chaotic, like Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I wondered, as I walked, and rode the subway, and stopped to ask locals for directions (“Sprechen sie English?”), whether it would even be possible for two people to visit all these places in one night. I have my doubts. (The cemetery is not even in central Vienna, for example.) Again, I was reminded that this was only a film after all. Just as this film’s conversations do not reflect reality, neither do the film’s locations.

But what should I have expected? It’s a fantasy film after all.

The best one ever made.

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