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`Before Sunrise' Makes Good Effort

Filmmaker aims for maturity in this tale of young love

`Before Sunrise'' marks an interesting new step for Richard Linklater, a young filmmaker with a lot of talent and an admirable desire to avoid the usual youth-movie formulas.

His first two pictures, ``Slacker'' and ``Dazed and Confused,'' were offbeat visits to the world of adolescence. The characters of ``Before Sunrise'' are a little older and wiser, and equally important - as is Linklater himself.

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He hasn't yet reached full maturity as an artist, and there are moments in the new movie when he strains to grow up in a hurry, decking the story with highbrow touches that seem more showy than profound. But it's refreshing to find a young filmmaker who wants to be highbrow in the first place, and who possesses the boldness to do his growing up in public.

Each of Linklater's previous pictures focuses on a large group of characters, following their interactions over the course of a single day. ``Slacker'' is the more innovative of the two, constantly moving from one narrative line to another in a sort of cinematic relay race. ``Dazed and Confused'' harks back to the ``American Graffiti'' tradition, showing how a bustling crowd of teenagers relate to one another at a period of transition in their lives.

``Before Sunrise'' keeps the compact time structure Linklater favors - very proper and classical, recalling ancient Greek drama -

but drastically cuts the number of people with significant roles in the story.

There are only two: Jesse, an American about to return home after a European sojourn, and Celine, a French student he meets by chance on a train. They strike up a conversation, discover many interests and feelings in common, and decide to spend a day and night wandering through Vienna before Jesse boards his plane to cross the Atlantic.

This being a movie, it goes without saying that they fall more goofily in love with every passing hour. What's surprising about the picture is the extravagant amount of time it spends on the long meandering conversations that preoccupy the romantic couple.

There's nothing deep about their ideas, their emotions, or their use of language - this is Linklater territory, not Eric Rohmer or Jean-Luc Godard - but there's nothing cheap or cheesy here, either.

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The youngsters discuss love, death, and other Big Issues of the human condition, as well as their hopes, dreams, and experiences. We listen with alternating inter- est, boredom, and affection. Then their day is over, and there's noth- ing left to learn except whether they'll decide to meet again and turn their brief infatuation into a long-term commitment.

As this description indicates, ``Before Sunrise'' is both modest and ambitious - modest in its minimalist plot and short list of characters, yet ambitious in its willingness to stretch these into the stuff of a full-length film.

What attracts me most about the movie is the importance it gives to the act of sharing one's life through language, at a time when most filmmakers are less interested in words than in whatever slam-bang action they can dream up. ``Before Sunrise'' isn't an intellectual movie, but it's a literate one, and that's cause for celebration even when the screenplay falls short of its aspirations and slides into mere talkiness.

Many key ingredients of ``Before Sunrise'' clearly stem from Linklater's wish to make the movie appealing beyond the teen audience he courted in his earlier work. Setting the tale mostly in Vienna, punctuating it with classical music, giving Jesse and Celine college educations and a taste for books - all these decisions announce Linklater's determination to seem adult and sophisticated, although his maneuvers would work better if they weren't so numerous and conspicuous.

Moviegoers who enjoy European cinema will also spot a wide range of film-related references. One is the heroine's name, which pays tribute to Jacques Rivette's great ``Celine and Julie Go Boating'' as well as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the controversial French author. Another is an episode that salutes Michelangelo Antonioni's classic ``Eclipse'' by revisiting various locations of the story after the characters have departed from them.

Nods to Robert Bresson's expressive ``Four Nights of a Dreamer'' appear to be present, too, and it's possible the title refers to F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece ``Sunrise,'' about an unhappy couple whose marriage heals when they spend a day in the city. There's nothing wrong with allusions like these, but one can't help feeling they diminish the film by calling attention to far-greater achievements.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are ideal choices to play the young lovers, and the small supporting cast does well with the minor characters who wander into the story now and then - most memorably a pair of amateur Austrian actors who have a brief chat with Jesse and Celine, in a scene suggesting that ``Slacker''-style cameos are still what Linklater does best.

Kim Krizan co-wrote the screenplay, and Lee Daniel did the fine-looking cinematography.

* Rated * for occasional strong language.

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