A lovely, rather risky concept isn’t entirely fulfilled in the telling of “Before Sunrise,” the third feature by “Slacker” helmer Richard Linklater. Fragile tale concerns two kids who meet by chance on a train in Europe and decide to spend a few hours together to see what happens, so pic’s fate therefore depends greatly upon the chemistry of the two stars and the creation of a magical ambience through the characters, physical mood-setting, music and delicate storytelling. While pic remains sympathetic and appealing, the endless dialogue and repetitive settings become wearing through the couple’s one long night together, and the artifice of the premise may contribute to the difficulty the film has in coming to romantic life.
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The strains of classical music that accompany the opening images of people on a train shuttling across central Europe immediately announce the film’s apparent radical difference from Linklater’s “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” both of which featured dozens of Texas layabouts and lots of rock music.
As action progresses, however, it becomes clear that “Before Sunrise” relies just as rigidly upon its structural formulation as do the previous pix, only this time there are just two characters who incessantly exchange ideas as they wander across a cityscape.
Burg in question here is the older and grander Vienna. As their train is speeding toward the former cradle of empire, a youngAmerican fellow, Jesse (Ethan
Hawke), begins chatting with a lovely French student, Celine (Julie Delpy), who’s on her way back to Paris. Quite taken with each other, the two are shortly faced with the familiar prospect of never seeing one another again and not knowing what might have been possible between them.
Charmingly and persuasively arguing that they should find out, Jesse, who is due to fly back to the U.S. the next day, convinces Celine to detrain with him in Vienna so they can get to know each other better; if he turns out to be a “psycho,” he says, she can always hop on the next train home.
And so begins an encounter that will possess reverberations for anyone who was ever young and footloose in Europe, but never approaches anything resembling a “Brief Encounter” in poignance. With no particular destination in mind, the pair range around the city, which Celine visited once before as a child, taking in a few sights, stopping at countless cafes, exchanging
backgrounds and life experiences, daring each other to reveal themselves emotionally, propounding half-baked philosophies, and feeling they might be falling in love.
In the most romantic of fashions, Jesse and Celine kiss for the first time atop the famed Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park at sunset (without ever mentioning “The Third Man”), and their nocturnal rounds take them to the Vienna equivalent of a grunge bar, as well as to a park, where they debate whether they should make love.
The morning brings the inevitable leavetaking, and a sweet coda, revisiting some of the spots the couple have passed through, pithily conveys what this short time together has meant for them.
What’s commendable about Linklater’s approach here is the real-time, in-depth aspect of portraying a burgeoning relationship. Instead of superficial short scenes or evasive montages, the director creates a pretty full sense of what it’s like to spend hours with another person.
The downside comes in the dramatic area. There is no conflict keeping them apart, no obstacles to be overcome, no tension to the relationship.
Other problem is the relative ordinariness of Hawke’s character. While attractive and enthusiastic, Jesse is ultimately a regular guy who lacks the quirks and distinctiveness that would make him a resonant personality.
More than once, one is reminded of another Americans-abroad film, “Barcelona, ” and Jesse could have used a jolt of Whit Stillmanesque sharpness to separate him from the crowd of other jeans-wearing American boys.
By contrast, Delpy’s Celine is a beautiful creation, a young lady seemingly mature beyond her years but still searching foranswers both emotional and intellectual. Light hints of her obsession with death and other matters lend her just enough darkness to set off her otherwise buoyant, sparkling personality, and her description of her May ’68-era parents allows the viewer to mentally sketch her upbringing.
Perhaps it was part of Linklater’s and co-writer Kim Krizan’s point to suggest that Europeans, and women, are more mature and sophisticated than their American male counterparts, but Celine quickly emerges as a far more engaging and fully drawn personality.
Vienna is naturally the third major character of the piece, and lenser Lee Daniel captures this home of Old World culture in splendid fashion. Other production values are solid, and score mixes classical snippets with a number of rock tunes.
A handful of oddballs interrupt the two-hander, but never for long.