IF THERE'S ONE thing Richard Linklater's good at, it's staying up late. The director kept a narrative up way past its bedtime to observe 100 misfits in Slacker, and he followed a long night of innocent partying in his nostalgic ode to growing up in the '70s, Dazed and Confused. With Before Sunrise, Linklater stretches into the wee hours to show us a snapshot romantic encounter between two wandering souls. Now on his third film, the last five letters of his name are really starting to make sense.
Before Sunrise begins in a setting that is becoming a Linklater trademark--on public transportation. During a Eurail train ride through Austria, a loud argument between a middle-aged German couple prompts a pretty young French woman (Julie Delpy) to switch train cars, where she finds herself sitting next to an attractive, slightly grungy American (Ethan Hawke). The two exchange glances, make awkward small talk, and soon decide to move to a dining car and get to know each other.
Their conversation, while not exactly My Dinner with Andre material, is successful enough that Hawke invites his new acquaintance to take a break from her trip to Paris to spend the evening exploring Vienna with him (his plane leaves the next morning). She agrees, and a miniature romantic adventure begins. Careful not to get too close too soon, the two would-be lovers walk, talk and enjoy brief, quaint meetings with Viennese street characters. Linklater treats Vienna as a European version of his hometown Austin, Texas, where restless slackers can find plenty of curious, harmless ways to amuse themselves while simply strolling around.
Of course, the romance has to progress faster than usual in order to go anywhere in one night, so Hawke and Delpy make blunt attempts to open up to each other. During a bus ride Hawke springs the good old-fashioned "What were your first sexual feelings?" question on his new friend, and she volleys with the reliable "When was the first time you were in love?" query. Many of these exchanges are almost too generic, too ordinary, for a feature film, but it's to Linklater's credit that he allows the cliches to play out without heed. After all, they aren't cliches without a reason. God really is "in the space between people as they try to connect," as corny as that sounds.
Linklater lingers on that space, leaving Before Sunrise bathed in conversation. This is plainly a one-note film, but it's a note worth listening to: the tingly sound of those first honest revelations between two people who genuinely like each other. And Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Krizan, brings out some interesting truisms along the way. At one point Hawke talks about how much it hurts to be broken up with because, "You think back to when you broke up with people, remember how little you thought about them, and realize that's how little your current ex is thinking about you." These truisms don't add up to much over the course of the film, but their effect on the characters' mutual empathy certainly does.
Despite the movie's charms, at times Before Sunrise suffers from a bad case of All Talk, No Action Syndrome. When Hawke and Delpy finally kiss, for example, the scene is cut frustratingly short and we soon see them chatting again. There were times when I wanted to shout out "Shut up and get a room already!"
In the hands of lesser actors, the picture would surely be a big babbling ball of pretention. But the two leads, who were allowed by Linklater to shape the script and add their own lines and observations, give some gravity to the ethereal words floating off their lips. Julie Delpy, seen recently in Killing Zoe, comes across as a fantasy French girl who is both worthy of that fantasy and smart enough to resent being its object. Ethan Hawke, in spite of his baggy-butt jeans and trendy facial hair (which makes him look rather like Kevin Dillon), manages to create a believable portrayal of an American schmo who has just enough intelligence and wit to overcome his obnoxious, childish qualities.
Linklater, like Hawke's character, is definitely that kind of schmo. Though Slacker was too purposely weird to make a watchable movie, with Before Sunrise Linklater has really blossomed as a director of basic human feelings. The film's best payoffs come at the end, when Linklater lets the camera gaze straight up at the bittersweet blue dawn sky after a night spent making love in the grass, then proceeds to take the viewer on a daytime tour of all the night's romantic locations, which by sunlight appear pale and vacant. With these few, brilliant strokes Linklater gives Before Sunrise a sophisticated melancholy edge, taking his characters from their romantic heights back down to earth, where everything is once again complicated, harsh and unsure.
Before Sunrise is playing at Catalina (881-0616) and Century Gateway (792-9000) cinemas.
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