BEFORE SUNRISE ***1/4. Directed by Richard Linklater. Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Written by Linklater & Kim Krizan. Photography, Lee Daniel. Editing, Sandra Adair. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. An American-Austrian production released by Castle Rock. 101 min. Rated R (unjustified).
The siren song of Europe is getting to many of our younger Independent filmmakers. The current American New Wave, even more than its predecessors, to a great extent owes a debt to the talky styles of the old French New Wave, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer. Now some American writer-directors are also transporting the action of their films to Europe, physically and in spirit. Like much of Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth." Like Whit Stillman's "Barcelona " and Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise."
The earlier works of those writer-directors , including Linklater's first two major features ("Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused'), were quintessentially American. But in "Before Sunrise" he has the Old World and the New World meet on the Budapest-to-Paris train, in the shape of two 23-year olds, Vienna-bound American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Paris-bound French Celine (Julie Delpy)
There's almost instant electricity, so that when the train pulls into Vienna, and Jesse, broke and flying back to the States the next day, proposes to Celine that she interrupt her trip and spend with him the next 14 hours going around in the Austrian city, she accepts.
In a bold and uncommercial move for an American director, instead of action or heavy breathing, Linklater has his entire film follow the pair as they wander about town and talk,talk, talk...
In the train, Jesse had told Celine his pie-in-the-sky idea for a "A Day in the Life Of..." TV program, where 100 cameras throughout the world would each follow a person around the clock. Now, in Vienna, Jesse becomes director Linklater's stalked subject.
The twosome's conversations are careful facsimiles of genuine youth talk, one that eager, mutually attracted new acquaintances would engage in any time, any place. There's soul-bearing, small revelations, tidbits and the many banalities that go with mutual discovery. In a park, for instance, Celine exclaims "Hey, there's a rabbit!" Jess; "Hi, Mr. Rabbit!" Celine: "He's so cute!."
They jabber away, with the man sometimes chatting up the woman, as they meander by streetcar or on foot. They see sights, visit a record store, an amusement park, a grungy bar with awful music, a string of cafes. They get their palms read and watch street nightlife that includes a terrible belly-dancer. They meet briefly some people (amateur actors, a post-hippie poet panhandler) but without the systematic encounters of "Slacker." No matter what they do, Jess and Celine's adventure is one long tete-a-tete.
And they keep talking... Hawke and Delpy speak lines carefully but not blatantly scripted. These ring true and originate in part from improvisations during rehearsals. The Godard-Rohmer influence is crystal-clear. As in Godard, in a mixture of trivialities and serious items, Jesse and Celine jump from subject to subject, keep up a barrage of questions, comments, anecdotes, micro-lectures, irrelevant information. Celine contributes some skeptical Gallic views, like feminists being mostly invented by men, in order to tell women "You are now free. Let's hop in bed."
We still get only fragments of who Jesse and Celine are. One thing is certain, that he is no M.A. in English as, on-screen and in interviews Hawke keeps repeating "... for her and I." All this is punctuated by clever little non-verbal touches, some quite well-digested Godard characteristics, like a pinball machine, ambient noises, the pair "photographing" each other without a camera or admitting their mutual attraction in a lovely scene of imaginary phone calls.
As in Rohmer they explore thoughts and feelings, though without approaching the complexity of Rohmer's strategies, the intelligence, didacticism and ambitiousness of Godard's dialogues and monologues, or, Louis Malle's analytical gabfest in "My Dinner with Andre." The Linklater-Krizan script was not written for profundities or rhetoric but for realism and romance.
At times this difference can make the appealing "Before Sunrise" slightly tedious for viewers who have experienced saying and hearing it all before. Yet the originality, authenticity and fidelity to real life add up to a freshness uncommon in American cinema.
The hours pass. The original 110-Volt electricity between Celine and Jesse increases to 220 Volts, the European standard. Stronger current brings bigger problems. Brief encounters between people from distant lands can be heartbreaking. Linklater keeps his characters seemingly gay and insouciant, yet as they get closer to each other you begin to ache for some way to make this nice twosome a real, lasting couple.
The scenario's solution is straight out of "Love Affair," "An Affair to Remember" or Rohmer's "A Tale of Winter," films that the two young people must have missed, since, like the lovers in those movies, they make no contigency plans.
In "Before Sunrise" there's charm, humor, un-treacly warmth and an effective use of classical music. The movie does not fall into the old trap of the naive American vs. the sophisticated European, and it also takes an intelligent, un-cliched and un-touristy advantage of the city of Vienna.
Hawke has somewhat ridiculous facial hair but a pleasant personality that's at the juncture of callowness and maturity. Attractive and intelligent Delpy speaks flawless English, very cannily observed. Like many foreigners who, consciously or not, want to show off their command of a foreign language, she uses four-letter words instead of "stuff," "thing," or "make love." This, I am sure, is what made the unreliable and illogically prudish judges come up with a rating of "R" rather than "PG-13."