Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. (1995, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 27, 1995
Strangers on a train- it's one of the oldest romantic formulas in the book. Jesse (Hawke) is a young American traveling Europe on a Eurail pass. Celine (Delpy) is a French graduate student at the Sorbonne returning from her holiday to Paris. They talk, and some sparks fly, and then the train pulls into Vienna, where Jesse is due to catch a flight back to the States the next morning. He convinces her to get off the train with him and spend the hours until his plane departs exploring Vienna and getting to know one another. As much as any movie by Eric Rohmer (My Night at Maud's, Claire's Knee) or a movie like My Dinner with Andre, Before Sunrise is “about” the glories of conversation and getting to know another individual. The movie's all-in-one-evening time frame only accelerates their discovery process. Watching and listening to these two is a charming experience; their conversation has the ring of veracity, and rarely does the viewer's interest stray. So natural does their conversation seem that the movie conveys an air of spontaneous improvisation; yet the truth is anything but. Certainly Hawke and Delpy contributed mightily to the development of their characters, but the script (co-written by Linklater and Kim Krizan) was carefully worked out and rehearsed in advance. The achievement of such a spontaneous feel is a credit to the performances of Hawke and Delpy, whose intelligence and seductiveness fill out their characters. The ultimate thing that makes the well-cast Before Sunrise work is that the audience genuinely likes these characters and desires to spend time in their company. There are a couple of scenes that are so charmingly sublime (i.e., the telephone conversations) that they achieve the status of transcendent moments out of time. The movie also walks a fine line between a dependence on and a resistance to the standard litany of romantic clichés. Meeting an exciting stranger while on holiday in a foreign place is a familiar Hollywood scenario (Three Coins in the Fountain, Summertime, Only You). The idea of spending one perfect night with that person is one of those illusive possibilities for which we all hold out hope. The classicism of the Viennese setting -- a city that neither Jesse nor Julie calls home -- lends the movie an eternal yet vibrant feel. The loveliness of the camerawork frames the characters in long takes and sensuous back-and-forth movements and places these two so firmly within their surroundings that the city appears barren once they depart. Still, Jesse's stubborn cynicism and Julie's prudent realism are never far removed from their magic moment together, and these impulses regularly surface to scrutinize their situation. The ambiguities of the movie's ending are enough to call into question the situational nature of the “happy ending.” Before Sunrise represents a maturation of Linklater's work in terms of its themes and choice of characters. As in his previous films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused he still maintains a great attentiveness to characters and the influence of time, but with Before Sunrise his focus begins to include some larger human issues. Linklater also reinforces his relationship with Austin culture with his inclusion here of a David Jewell poem (recited by the street poet) and a Kathy McCarty rendition of a Daniel Johnston tune over the closing credits.