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Analog Love in a Digital World: Re-watching ‘Before Sunrise’ 25 Years On

by Sam Nicholls | September 21, 2020

Earlier this year, in honour of the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the cast and crew of Before Sunrise (1995) sat down with the New York Times to discuss their memories of the cult classic’s production

As they waxed poetic and reminisced on the hazy summer days and late-night rewrites, the conversation naturally drifted to how they felt the film was remembered by the public. In particular, Ethan Hawke (who played Jesse) made a notable contribution: “my daughter [the actress Maya Hawke] decided to watch the movie with some of her friends, and there was a certain envy they had for a time where you didn’t have email. Life insisted that you live in the moment more. There’s something about always being digitally present that allows you to not be present, and part of what Jesse and Céline [played by Julie Delpy] try to do in that movie is actually be present with each other.”

Told over the course of 12 or so hours, Before Sunrise is markedly centred around Jesse and Céline being “present with each other.” He’s a Euro-railing American, stuck in Vienna for a night until his flight home the following morning, and she’s a Parisian student he meets on a train who, on a whim, decides to join him. As they wander around the Austrian capital – with just each other for company — they grow close and fall in love, only to say goodbye at sunrise, perhaps never to meet again. It’s a daydream of a story, and perhaps not one that could’ve existed in a world saturated with social media.

It’s an overwrought question, but one that rings true: oxymoronically, does the interconnectedness of social media push us apart? Like Hawke suggests, Jesse and Céline’s love story may not have worked if either had an iPhone to hide behind. In their rewatches of the film, a wave of contemporary critics have commented that Before Sunrise “romanticises” this analog world of the 90s, celebrating it as a bygone era that is sought after but, unfortunately, never fully reached. 

But is this actually the case? Is it possible for today’s youth to achieve that analog sort of love in this digital world? In watching Before Sunrise 25 years later, are today’s Jesses and Célines being shown something they can never realistically achieve, and should they even care? 

In other words, is Maya Hawke right to be envious?

Simply put, the 1990s are quite different to the 2020s. The internet, the culture, even the coronavirus; despite only being 30 years apart, these two times feel worlds away. More presciently, because of this, the way we experience the world in each period is vastly different. This is perhaps best epitomised in Before Sunrise’s framing of Vienna itself. Jesse and Céline have no ‘guide’ to the city – unlike modern couples, they don’t have Google Maps, social media, or even a friend on speed-dial to help them navigate the magnificent metropolis. All they have is each other. When Jesse first pitches the idea of sharing a night in the capital together, Céline asks, “What are we going to do?” he candidly responds with an excited, “I don’t know!” 

As a result, Vienna is constructed as a place of mystery, its unchartered waters are a space of vulnerability, with the pair at Vienna’s mercy. Neither speak German, nor do they know the cobbled roads well. They wander aimlessly into bars and parks without any forethought, and because of this, their experiences are discovered, not sought after. As critic David Sims comments, “[Before Sunrise] really acts as if Vienna is a magic kingdom laid out for Jesse and Céline to have their perfect night, down to the poet by the canals who creates an original work for them on the spot.” The capital facilitates Jesse and Céline’s love story through creating a “magic kingdom,” including zany residents for them to discover and bond over.

This analog experience of discovery is perhaps difficult, if not impossible, for those of us in a digital generation to achieve: even beyond our much-publicised ‘addiction’ to social technology, the world has evolved so that such a discovery is harder to attain. Indeed, earlier this year, writer Stephen Kelman visited Vienna with his partner, hoping to relive Jesse and Céline’s love story by retracing their steps in the film. Recording the experience for LitHub, they soon discovered that such an endeavour was flawed. Everything is digital now. From eTickets to Airbnbs to Twitter recommendations, the world exists online. As Kelman commented, “any hope that we might somehow capture the movie’s magic… seemed suddenly foolish.” The world has changed since the 90s, and hoping to relive its analog kind of love seems like a fool’s errand.

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Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunrise.

Moreover, it’s not only how we experience the world as a whole that has changed, but also the way we experience individual moments. Take Jesse and Céline’s first stop in Vienna, scouring the shelves of the ‘Alt and Neu’ record shop. Now almost a relic confined to the annals of history, record shops were a mainstay of the 90s, offering young people a space to connect and bond over a mutual love for a particular genre or artist. In Before Sunrise, it offers something even more: the chance to fall in love. Indeed, whilst shopping in the store, the pair decide to step into a booth and listen to Come Here by Kath Bloom. As the duo enjoy Bloom’s amorous lyrics, they don’t exchange a single word, instead only glancing at each other and only occasionally catching the other’s eye. As critic Daniel Broadley comments, “there’s a longing in each of their faces which captures the effects of two people falling in love”. The listening booth, then, acts as a space of communal experience, allowing Jesse and Céline to share that private, incipient moment of love through the music (Hawke stated in the New York Times interview that this section is “probably [his] favourite performance” throughout his career). In a world now devoid of listening booths, it’s hard to imagine a similar scene happening within such a space – to be in a listening booth of an unknowable city, sharing a safe and private moment (sharing earbuds don’t come close). Thus, it would appear that Before Sunrise does depict a world cut-off from the digital generations; one where cities are mysteries and record shops spark first loves without the distractions of a stream of notifications – how can contemporary viewers hope to achieve what that young pair do?

But, maybe we’re wrong. Indeed, the defining feature of the film isn’t the pair’s pre-digital existence but the heart-to-heart conversations they have. Despite only just meeting, Jesse and Céline consider an array of deep and thought-provoking topics, ranging from their parents’ career expectations of them (“He takes my dreams and turn them into a way of making money”) to how they feel the world’s problems are endemic (“Say what you want, the same shit is still there”). Importantly, these themes aren’t specific to their time: they’re issues every young person is bound to face. Each generation has been confronted with their parents pushing them down a more prudent path, and who doesn’t feel like they’ve inherited problems they can never fix? Before Sunrise isn’t so much a celebration of the ‘analog’ generation, but of the same existence every generation faces at some point: being young, being your own person, and being in love.

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise.

This timelessness is best illustrated at the end of the film. As Céline catches her train to Paris and Jesse boards the bus that will take him to the airport, the camera doesn’t linger with these separated lovers. Instead, we return to Vienna one last time, revisiting the different spaces in the city they explored the evening before (the Ferris wheel, the Maria-Theresien-Platz), backgrounded by the sun rising as Vienna awakens. The landmarks and monuments stand resolute and perpetual, ready for the next iteration of lovers. The grand shots betray the age of the city, indicating that many have found love in the capital’s long lifetime. Jesse and Céline may have memories of these places, but the city exists beyond just the two of them: Vienna has accommodated lovers before these two, and will continue to do so longer beyond them. This final tableaux is as cinematic and metaphorical as Before Sunrise gets, alluding to a time beyond the present as tomorrow finally dawns. This isn’t a film stuck in time, but rather one that touches all generations.

In essence then, Before Sunrise isn’t exhibiting a love that can never be achieved again; it’s just showing a form of that love that is perhaps resigned to history. Jesse and Céline fall in love, not due to record shops or the lack of Google Maps, but because of the conversations they share – conversations that can still happen in this digital world. Late night chats and long evening walks can happen anytime, anywhere. Before Sunrise isn’t “romanticising” a lost form of love but rather encouraging young people to go out and connect the way its lovers do. The film’s ‘analog’ charm may be lost to time, but talking, finding a deep connection, certainly isn’t.

In other words, Maya Hawke may be envious, but this sort of love is thankfully still out there.

Sam Nicholls Born and raised in South West London, Samuel is currently going through a Quarter-Life Crisis…but, like, in a cool way? You can follow him on Twitter @samniccy.

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