Strangers on a train pursue, and become, the real thing in haunting 'Before Sunrise' A fling to remember

January 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Acts of courage in movies are so rare these days that sometimes you don't even register them. But along comes "Before Sunrise," a wondrously soft and gentle romance about two young people with brains as well as glands, which is also, in its quiet way, courageous.

The two meet -- not particularly cutely -- on the day train to Vienna. They look like stereotypes: He's a scruffy American poet-bad boy, with a goatee and the bright and brittle look of a guy who's been dumped hard, in jeans, gray T-shirt and a beat-up leather jacket. She's an English-speaking French graduate student, with one of those ever-changeable, oddly almost-beautiful faces that's so much more memorable than a model's perfect beauty. She's dressed in accordance to the rules of youth wardrobe herself, a frumpy dress over a T-shirt, a dead plaid shirt. She's reading a dense text and one can infer a tendency toward intellectualization. They begin to talk.

And you're thinking: OK, when's the cut? Where's the banter? Who's going to be in the ironic subplot? What body part will we see first?

And the answers, as they play out: No cuts. No banter. No subplots. No nudity.

Writer-director Richard Linklater, bless his revolutionary soul, just lets it roll along in almost real-time -- all the yammering, drifting, sweet, stupid, pretentious, ill-considered, bravado-rich, unfunny and heartfelt chatter of two people feeling their way through the fog of each other's public personalities toward each other's souls. The plot outline seems to have been appropriated from E. M. Forster: Only connect. It's about only connecting.

You could cruelly summarize "Before Sunrise" as talk, talk, talk and you wouldn't be wrong. You could point out that it's not bright movie-talk, it's frequently repetitive and circular, and you wouldn't be wrong, either. And you could point out that at certain parts the film is easier to admire in theory than it is to enjoy in reality. But still . . .

But still, it's something of a miracle. For unlike any other movie, "Before Sunrise" offers people who feel intimately recognizeable. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) starts up his conversation with Celine (Julie Delpy) and it becomes immediately apparent that there's a chemical attraction between them. They reach Vienna, his destination, but not hers (she's headed to Paris). But he cannot let go.

Wild idea: Hey, why don't you get off here with me. I'm just going to wander around Vienna because I don't have enough money for a hotel room. Tomorrow morning I take a flight back to the U.S. It's a fling kind of thing.

Astonishingly, she says yes.

That's the movie: Jessie and Celine, wandering about one of Europe's most fabled cities, yapping the night away. One o'clock, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock TALK, 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock TALK, 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock TALK, we're going to TALK TALK TALK around the clock tonight, we're going to TALK TALK TALK until the broad daylight.

No clever adventures, no amusing minor characters, no real sense of Vienna as an enchanted glade, font of Mitteleuropa culture. It's just a city; they're just tourists. They have a couple of beers, a meal, they walk, they talk.

Their lives emerge eventually, but not in excruciating detail. We never know which state he's from, what he's studying or hopes to be; we never know much more about her either. At their age, life is relationships, not a resume.

Most heroically, Linklater doesn't oversentimentalize his characters. Jesse is quite capable of pitiful behavior, as when a fortune-teller doesn't find him as interesting as he believes himself to be, setting him off on an infantile tirade. Celine, for her part, has odd twitches, too: a memory of a relationship so obsessive it sounds unhealthy.

But most astonishingly, both these actors are familiar from other films. Delpy was the monumentally cool object of desire in Krzysztof Kieslowski' "White" and the co-star of Roger Avary's "Killing Zoe." Hawke has been playing sensitive, embittered idealists for so long he probably has a patent out on the product, as in "Dead Poet's Society" or "Reality Bites."

Yet the deepest triumph of each performance is that by reel two you've forgotten the whole professional actor thing, and you're not hearing lines or thinking of other movies you've seen them in. They're no longer stars; they're Jesse and Celine.

"Before Sunrise"

Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

Directed by Richard Linklater

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R

***

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