Finally, a date movie that gets it right. And it could have been butt awful. Reduce Before Sunrise to a sentence and you’re stuck with boy meets girl. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) from Texas picks up Celine (Julie Delpy) from Paris on the Eurail. She’s a grad student at the Sorbonne, and he’s an aimless dropout heading home in the a.m. The twenty-somethings connect – at least enough for Jesse to persuade Celine to join him for a few hours in Vienna, Austria. “If I turn out to be a psycho, you can bail out,” he says. They get off the train, see the sights (the Ferris wheel at Prater park is the one Orson Welles rode in The Third Man), share opinions, make out in the grass, fall in love and, 14 hours later, say auf Wiedersehen.Laugh. Sigh. Get out your handkerchiefs. Make the ads sexy and sell it as a slacker Affair to Remember.
For starters, forget what they sell it as. Before Sunrise,which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, is a sharp, sexy, funny romance with a radical core of intelligence that catches the fever and fleetingness of love. For this you can thank the beautifully nuanced performances of Hawke and Delpy; they are both terrific. But mostly you can credit director Richard Linklater, who wrote the sharply observant script with Kim Krizan. He sets the scrappy, seductive temperature of the relationship just right. Celine tells Jesse that fulfilling “some male fantasy – meet a French girl on a train, fuck her, never see her again and have a great story to tell” – holds no interest. Linklater couldn’t agree more. He believes that his characters have brains as well as hormones and that it is worth two hours of our time to listen to them talk and observe the ritual of how and why they connect.
Who is this guy, and where does he get the faith that audiences want more than dumb and dumber? Linklater, 33, is the maverick from Austin, Texas, who made his mark in 1991 with Slacker,the low-budget indie that gave form, flesh and wit to a subculture. Two years later, he went the studio route to craft the definitive pot-and-politics portrait of ’70s high-school life in Dazed and Confused. Hollywood wisdom has it that Linklater’s acclaimed social comedies failed to sell tickets because there were too many characters. Linklater reduces his cast to two in Before Sunrise,but he is still romancing the stoned and subverting the formula. Jesse, unlike most Gen X heroes, is sick of himself. He likes being with a stranger in a strange place; the dislocation makes him feel like someone else: “The only other way to lose yourself like this is with drugs or alcohol, dancing, stuff like that.”
Or take the way Linklater refuses to use Vienna as a travel-brochure aphrodisiac the way, say, Norman Jewison glossed up Italy in Only You.The first Austrians Jesse and Celine meet in Vienna are two guys who berate Jesse’s feeble German (“Sprechen sieEnglish?”) and the couple’s crass questions about finding something “fun” to do. “Why did you come to Vienna?” says one indignant local. “What could you be expecting?”
Vienna grows on Jesse and Celine only as they grow on each other. She drops the veneer; he eases up on the cynicism. Linklater uses the city as a blank page for two strangers to write on. A store specializing in old records (ah, vinyl) makes a provocative first stop. Standing in the forced intimacy of a listening room, they feel too awkward to act on their attraction. So much for cool. There is a kiss on the Ferris wheel, but they don’t have cash for the chic attractions. For them, it’s a bar, a dance club, a bottle of wine in the park, a walk by the Danube. Cinematographer Lee Daniel lights their travels with subtle magic so the history of the city seeps in. Nobody mentions Freud, but the good doctor is there in the way the two probe each other’s psyches.
Since Celine has ruled out sex (Jesse’s still pushing for it), psyches are all that’s left to probe. They can be honest because they’re only a momentary connection. “We die in the morning, right?” asks Jesse with mock bravado. Celine initiates a dangerous game – don’t try it at home. Each makes an imaginary call to a best friend and describes the other. It’s a revealing scene, rudely hilarious, and the actors play it to wicked perfection. Delpy (Killing Zoe) is a knockout – luminous and touching. And Hawke (Reality Bites), who has never been better, delivers an emotionally courageous performance that uncovers Jesse’s secret heart.
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Before Sunrisesneaks up on you the way love sneaks up on Jesse and Celine. As the two talk about art, poetry, family, sex, God, death and dreams, this little love story becomes a mesmerizing one-night microcosm of a lifetime relationship. Though Celine isn’t sure that two people can ever really communicate, she won’t give up on the attempt. Celine is driven to bridge the space between her and Jesse.
It’s the space between people that Linklater evokes so distinctively. His anthropologist’s eye for detail keeps the film brimming with the pleasures of the unexpected. After Jesse and Celine say goodbye, the camera returns to the places they visited. The plaintive scene recalls those moments in Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock when the young lovers played by Judy Garland and Robert Walker are swallowed up by the tumult of a Manhattan that goes on without them. Unresolved feelings linger, and Linklater, who is clearly a major talent, gives them a startling resonance. The laughs have such snap that at first you might miss the grace notes and the amplitude of Linklater’s vision. Hang on. Like the best movies, Before Sunrisekeeps messing with your head long after it ends. It’s a keeper.