Beautiful. Awkward. The most relatable scene in cinematic history?
Few directors capture and convey the beauty of humanity quite like Richard Linklater. Tapping into the field of relatable emotions may seem like filmmaking 101, but where Linklater surpasses many others is his easy going ability to draw out the true-to-life nature of such emotions. Since his debut feature in the late eighties, a certain collection of his films has been a breath of fresh air, in the sense that it reminds us of something so standard, yet completely unique; ourselves. They remind us of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, of people we know, and, what it’s like to experience the various positive and negative connotations of sex, romance and love. On the surface it may seem simplistic, but in reality it is was one of the hardest things any writer or director will ever have to do.
Case in point, Linklater’s acclaimed Before trilogy; specifically, the first part, Before Sunrise (1995). Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Céline – two strangers who get off a train together in Vienna with nothing but each other’s company for the next twelve hours – the picture is a demonstration of the rich, multi-layered romantic themes, actions and emotions that accompany something as ordinary as two people connecting and establishing a relationship.
One of Before Sunrise’s standout scenes – and my personal favourite – is the listening booth sequence:
At this stage, Jesse and Céline have only known one another for a short while, but they’re invested enough in each other (as are we in their rapidly developing rapport) for that beautiful, unknowing (yet so familiar) awkwardness to thrive in a brief, private moment of almost unbearable silence between them. The flickering expressions of uncertainty, punctuated with evident excitement in their eyes between their fleeting, but longing gazes come together to form one of Linklater’s most charming moments.
The cramped, low angle two shot adds to the claustrophobic tension, as if we’re invading the couple’s privacy while they remain none the wiser. Kath Bloom’s folk track, “Come Here”, is an inspired choice. Not many people – our characters included – are familiar with it, thus it’s highly personal, unexpectedly relevant lyrics only enhance the heart-racing, self-conscious, tongue-tied nature of the scene. The major achievement is the acting, with Linklater insisting on numerous tedious rehearsals to make sure that every glance, every smile, every reaction is where and when it should be. Hawke and Delpy respond with an inspired dual performance of perfect timing and heart-warming subtlety; portraying an indescribable exercise in romantic tension that is almost impossible not to relate to.
The will-they-won’t-they feeling one has the first time the scene is viewed is Linklater toying mercilessly with both his characters and his audience. We want them to kiss, but we know why they don’t. It’s still early, there’s people right outside, the song has made it too obvious – all accurate human reasoning in such a scenario. At the same time, we now know they almost certainly will kiss in the near future – no sane person can fend off such chemistry – meaning that when it does finally happen, atop the Ferris wheel, Linklater has already moved us on from narrow, singular encouragement and relief, to the big wide world (aided poetically by the vast landscape their view provides) of what all of this could mean. Will they sleep together? Will they stay together? What will happen when the sun comes up? So many questions, yet you almost don’t want them answered for fear it’ll end, a reflection of the sentiment hidden behind the eyes of the very couple entrancing us.
Never has a romance flick been so perfectly edge of your seat.