Richard Linklater seems to be on top of the world right now. “Boyhood” was nominated for six Oscars last week, including a Best Director nomination for Linklater, and is considered one of the front-runners for Best Picture. The timing arguably couldn’t be better as the same year that may produce one of the most unlikeliest Best Picture winners in memory is also the twentieth anniversary of Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” the start of the most unlikeliest trilogy of all-time.
Coming off the well reviewed but commercially moderate “Dazed and Confused” – the film wouldn’t find its cult audience for a little while – Linklater went smaller. After the large ensembles of both “Slackers” and “Dazed and Confused” Linklater decided to tell the story of two people as they spend a single night together in Vienna. Critics applauded the film’s sincerity, or as Roger Ebert put it, “no hidden agenda,” and praised Linklater, Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Celine) for a lovely time at the theater.
Presumably that was it, just as Jesse and Celine part ways “Before Sunrise” was a fleeting glimpse at these characters in a singular place. “They talk about everything and nothing as if there were no tomorrow… because there isn’t,” said New York Times critic Janet Maslin. “Sunrise” made a mere $5.5 million at the box-office. It didn’t garner any awards save for a Best Director prize from the Berlin Film Festival. It was going to be remembered as a sweet film, but at the end of the day not a game changer.
That’s what many thought at least. Twenty years later we know it to be a very different story. “Before Sunrise” now serves as the humble beginnings of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, which picked up every nine years after “Sunrise” with “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” Continuing the story of Jesse and Celine, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have created one of the most unique film experiments in the history of cinema, perhaps only second to Linklater’s other famous experiment with time, “Boyhood.”
Looking at the films individually, “Sunrise” is probably the weakest of the three. Of course that’s like saying which of the three “Lord of the Rings” films are the weakest. What elevates “Sunset” and “Midnight” above their predecessor is what happened before. Each new time we see Jesse and Celine it is richer because we remember what they were like before and we now see how they have evolved as people, as lovers, in small and in big ways on top of how they deal with new developments in their relationship.
“Sunrise” is that first encounter. Like Jesse and Celine we knew that there was something there that we admired, maybe even longed for, but it was almost a dream, too perfect to be real. The film was vital however because it gave us the reference to why these two people are worth rooting for. In “Midnight” Jesse reassures Celine that he still is the same person that asked her to get off the train in Vienna all those years ago; just as it is the spark of their relationship, “Sunrise” was the first step in film magic.
Of course silver screen magic doesn’t always translate into box-office success. Combined, the “Before” trilogy has grossed $32.7 million worldwide which has labeled it the lowest grossing trilogy in movie history, and “Sunrise” was the least grossing of them all. It is a badge that the filmmakers wear with pride however and rightly so. But how interesting would it be if more trilogies were made like this than mind-numbing style of the “Transformers” series and its like.
We’ll never know, however, because at the end of the day the “Before” trilogy is the exception, not the rule to the business that is Hollywood. Thankfully, at least once though, someone had the guts to see this project through. While “Sunset” and “Midnight” may be the consensus favorites, “Sunrise” started it all, and that is more than enough reason to honor it as it turns twenty.