Before Sunrise.

Before Sunrise. – movie reviews

Robert Horton

Sometime in the middle of their waltz through Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) stop at a kiosk papered with posters and flyers. One of the posters advertises a Seurat exhibition at a museum; unfortunately, the show doesn’t open for another week, and the two young strangers have only this night in the city. But that’s okay. Celine recognizes the drawing on the poster and talks about why she likes it and what it means to her, just the way someone would if she were in a museum.

This is a moment from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. It’s a throw-away scene, but also characteristic. Who needs museums, anyway? Linklater’s stubborn sense of egalitarianism insists that a poster tacked to a kiosk is perfectly suitable for discussion if a museum is unhandy. Partly that’s because Linklater’s characters don’t need much of a pretext to start talking, but also because this director’s accepting personality makes every experience available for glorification and/or documentation–there’s even a monologue in Before Sunrise that dreams of a cable channel devoted to 365 days’ worth of 24-hour documentaries following peoples’ real, unedited lives.

Before Sunrise (which Linklater wrote with Kim Krizan) has a clutch of those experiences, both ordinary and extra-, and like Linklater’s Slacker (’90) and Dazed and Confused (’93) it adds up to something worth documenting. This movie’s a charmer, and something more. In the same way that Dazed and Confused both fulfilled and undercut the American Graffiti genre of school-days reminiscence, Before Sunrise plays new variations on the holiday romance.

Jesse is an American spending his last day in Europe; in the morning he’ll fly back to the U.S. from Vienna. Celine is a graduate student on her way back to Paris and a new school year. On the train from Budapest, they sit in separate sections of a car until a couple’s bickering prompts Celine to move to the row opposite Jesse. Thanks to this twist of fate (which, in another twist, Celine later suggests was not entirely fate), they strike up a conversation and when the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse–in a rare, possibly singular moment of action–suggests that Celine join him for the evening (he’s out of money, so he can’t afford a pension for the night). He can’t quite come out and say it’s because he’s bewitched or lonely or aroused; in a typically Linklateresque formulation, he proposes that if Celine joins him it will forestall the day, twenty years ahead, when she’ll wonder whether that American guy she briefly met on the train from Budapest that day might have been the man that got away.

The rest of the film covers their night together, as they wander Vienna, talk, and circle slowly around the romantic inevitaility of the man-woman thing. (Linklater has said that he chose the city for its coffeehouse culture and Euro-slacker vibe, but its status as the birthplace of that talking cure, psycho-analysis, should not be ignored.) Their train of conversation, hurtling along behind the engine of sexual interest, veers from cosmic noodling to we-may-never-see-each-other-again tendresse.

So, unlike Slacker and Dazed and Confused, this is a movie for just two main characters, closely watched. In synopsis, the story would not be out of place in a travelogue romance from the Fifties, but Linklater keeps tugging at the loose ends of the situation; instead of entwining his characters in something like romantic destiny, they more often seem to be playing out idle curiosity–at least until the final reels. Linklater works hard not to tell this one from the male point of view, especially in visually matching the characters: Jesse and Celine are twinned in the narrowed rear window of a streetcar, scrunched into a listening booth at a record store (somehow Linklater’s eye has captured how all used-record stores look in Europe), taking turns at a pinball machine where they discuss the delayed question of Significant Others back in the real world. Many of their conversations are beautifully cut, as calm and measured in their back-and-forth progression as the chat between Norman and Marion in Psycho’s parlor (I mean to imply no sinister undercurrent, just classical care). Despite this and the fact that Linklater deliberately gives Celine the opening and closing shots, Jesse becomes the more central of the two, because of his talky maleness and the lack of a language barrier with the audience.

Ethan Hawke and Linklater are doing something with the character that keeps the project firmly isolated from its Three Coins in the Fountain possibilities: they make Jesse into a bit of a dork. A likable guy, but given to superficial charm, a suspiciousness about women, and a cynicism that capitalizes on the actor’s sour streak. When a palm-reader tells Celine a sweet fortune, or a street poet sells an impromptu verse based on a word the couple has chosen, Jesse is quick to rip away the romantic nature of these graces and point out the likelihood of sham (“You know he probably didn’t just write that…”).

This is seamless; Hawke and Linklater don’t distance themselves from the character. Jesse’s more gauche aspects do make it slightly harder to believe in Celine’s continued interest in this boy, because her intelligence comes across like a cool white light; Julie Delpy, recovered from the brutal treatment of Roger Avary’s hateful Killing Zoe, gives you the impression she’ll be the one to go home and write about this night in Vienna when it’s all over. But when Jesse tells Celine a vision he had as a child, of his dead grandma appearing, rainbow-like, in the spray of a garden hose, Celine knows she has found a fellow watcher.

She spends much of the film responding to Jesse’s philosophical theories, watching the situation, forcing it along when his nerve fails him: on the Prater Wheel, the one from which Harry Lime delivers his godlike musings in The Third Man, they stand primed for a first kiss, but Jesse can only set the scene and describe how appropriate it would be for a kiss right now, at sunset, high above Vienna: it is she who must instigate lip-lock.

Linklater likes this kind of sideways-scene. Throughout the film he dances around expectations. When Celine and Jesse bump into a couple of Fassbinder types early in the film, we may assume that the voyagers will show up for the experimental theater piece these wiggy Austrians have invited them to see. But they don’t, and it only gets referred to after it’s passed. Later, though the film is clearly gathering momentum toward a physical coupling, Celine chides this impulse, as though criticizing the boy-meets-girl, boy-sleeps-with-girl story of most movies: she says the setup is just entirely too predictable and easy–a guy on his last night in Europe, a French girl–it’s too corny. Which is an apt observation, but it doesn’t have anything to do with their actual, growing desire for each other. (Their hesitations are eventually worked through with the help of some negotiated agreements and a bottle of red wine in the park.)

As the film goes on, Linklater makes gentle comedy of these distracted post-mods. But also includes the bitter and sweet: Jesse is carried away enough with the idea of their situation (especially when it looks as though sex is off the carte du jour anyway) that he proposes a neat artifice: they should concentrate their entire relationship into this single evening, and agree right now never to write or call each other again. He gets so caught up in the art of this contract that he doesn’t see Celine’s disappointment.

The director is slowly swinging around to his true subject: how the young inheritors of the 20th century can grope toward the old goals–love, sex, the anticipation of a future–while encased in their shroud of selfconsciousness. That’s what has stunned the roving talkers in Slacker and the aimless schoolkids in Dazed and Confused: they know too much already. Early in Before Sunrise Jesse speaks proudly about having had a good bullshit detector as a youth, but that premature loss of innocence cuts both ways.

After filling each other’s ears with talk for the better part of the evening, Jesse and Celine finally say something: they hold a mock telephone conversation across a restaurant table, and describe each other honestly and tenderly to a listener on the other end of the imaginary line. There’s something naive about the scene, we’ve seen it elsewhere, but it fits Linklater’s comedy of selfconsciousness perfectly. Jesse and Celine do have the old goals. It just takes a while to cop to them, especially when Jesse is saying things like “Love is an escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone.”

As in his previous films, Linklater has found his own dreamy rhythm, deceptively loose-looking: his movies breathe, missing a few beats, in unexpected moments. Before Sunrise will track silently down the middle aisle of a train car, or eavesdrop on other conversations, or hold on a streetcorner the principals have already left behind. One thinks of the moment, before Slacker has established its sequential structure, when the camera nonchalantly begins to withdraw from the scene of a car accident, and–what the hell!–you realize it’s really going to turn away completely from this apparently important event.

The advised flatness of Linklater’s approach is key. Slacker’s structure, a rondo that never comes around again, precludes individual prominence. Dazed and Confused, which shares its 24-hour clock with the other two films, throws itself out over a large group–so much so that the (apparent) main character, Randall “Pink” Floyd, frequently drifts away from the center of even the scenes he’s in, and his refusal to sign a drug-free pledge for the football team comes to feel like a forced piece of ethical “drama,” not quite organic to the rest of the movie’s fluid, unemphatic spread.

Late in Before Sunrise, Linklater does pull a stylish coup: a series of shots of the places Celine and Jesse have gone floating. Now empty, they are bathed in a morning-after light that dispels the magic of the night before, leaving dull spaces. And it was magic, we now get in retropsect. It’s easy to be distracted by the talk, which can be variously insightful-sharp or collegiate-profound, but Linklater has been busy creating offhand enchantment: I don’t know how good an idea the streetside poet is, but the lights that shimmer on the water behind him are achingly gorgeous: and the creamy golden glow of an alleyway, where the lovers pause and rest for what seems to be an important moment, is a bath of intimacy. There is something just lovely here, tempered by Linklater’s feel for emptiness: this movie is diverting at first glance, and surprisingly haunting in its aftermath.

It will be interesting to see where the Austin auteur goes next, for the qualities I’ve just described are not the surest path to commercial success, and his directorial self-effacement may be limiting after a while. But Before Sunrise feels just right, for now–it forms a piece with Linklater’s previous movies (all of which start and end with traveling motion, as though connected on the same loop), and it proves that Slacker was not merely an isolated gimmick, one of those great ideas for a movie that somebody had to have; its sense of curiosity and inclusion and–for want of a better word–democracy are Linklater’s view of the world. The palm-reader in Before Sunrise tells Celine, “You have been on a journey, and you are a stranger in this place.” That is the director’s guiding principle, so look for Linklater’s next film to begin in motion.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group