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‘Before Sunrise’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 27, 1995


Richard Linklater
Ethan Hawke;
Julie Delpy
Under 17 restricted

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Jesse, the young hero of Richard Linklater's enormously charming "Before Sunrise," isn't having a very good time on his European vacation. He had saved up to meet his girlfriend in Spain, but almost as soon as he arrives, she blows him off. Despondent but not yet ready to return to the States, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) buys a Eurailpass and bums around Europe for a couple of weeks until he's so tired of the scenery slipping past his window that he welcomes the arrival of his departure date in Vienna and the chance, finally, to go home.

But Jesse's luck is about to change. While approaching Vienna by train on his very last full day in Europe, he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student on her way back to Paris, and after some brief, rather clumsy attempts at idle banter he invites her to the club car for some serious conversation. Soon these strangers on a train begin trading stories, sharing their dreams and secrets, their views on relationships, death, romance and whatever else comes to mind. Their conversation is fractured and rambling, and perhaps because of their tender years, not terribly deep. But there is also a touching guilelessness and eagerness to connect in their words to one another. And so, when the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse -- whose plane doesn't leave until the next morning -- makes a bold proposal: Get off the train with me here. We can walk around the city, taking in the sights, talking and getting to know one another. In the morning, I'll fly out of here, but at least we will have had an adventure together.

To Jesse's amazement, Celine accepts her new friend's offer. After stashing their bags at the station, the two meander around the city and, initially, from the way they bump into colorful eccentrics along the way -- like the actor who plays a cow in an avant-garde theater piece -- it looks as if Linklater might simply be content to apply the same loose, free-associative style he unveiled in "Slacker" to an Old World setting -- a sort of "Slackers in Europe."

But as the bond between the characters continues to blossom, the peripheral figures begin to recede into the background. At this point it might seem that the film begins to lose its personal edge to become a more conventional romantic story about young lovers on holiday. But the movie is too talky, too exploratory -- and ultimately too downbeat -- to qualify as mainstream. As Jesse and Celine schmooze and gambol, they aren't just discovering each other, they're discovering themselves as well, testing their ideas about life and, perhaps, putting them into words for the first time.

Naturally there are conflicts. Celine, who seems the more mature of the two, is also a romantic -- and with her long, tendrilly blond curls, she certainly looks the part of a fairy tale princess. Jesse, on the other hand, is a born skeptic, and because of his recent fiasco in Spain, not particularly psyched about the possibility of true romance between men and women. For a time, this contrast of views creates a certain edginess and suspicion in their friendship -- especially when Celine remarks that men should feel lucky that women let them live after sex -- giving rise to the thought that maybe the adventure wasn't such a good idea after all.

This specter of sexual violence -- casual though it may be -- isn't the only shadow in this surprisingly absorbing film. During Jesse and Celine's long day's night together, Linklater creates a suspended, out-of-time feel, as if the characters had stepped off the train and into their own romantic dimension. But underneath the surface, there is also a vague feeling of rootlessness and confusion and perhaps even fear. For all their displays of worldliness and sophistication, these raw kids are trying to make sense of a world that refuses to make sense. What's remarkable is that they connect at all; but then Linklater's point may be that in order for love to bloom, the partners must come to each other without any prior knowledge or expectations or cultural baggage.

What's also impressive is how Linklater manages to keep all these different ingredients in balance -- and that the result is so tender and enlivening. In this regard, Linklater owes a substantial debt to his stars. As Jesse, Hawke doesn't so much thrill us with his acting as disarm us with his awkward boyish allure. And Delpy, with her pale, clear-blue eyes and high forehead, makes a perfect foil for him, making him seem more grown-up and less of a lightweight.

Though Linklater allows the movie to wander, he never allows the pace to slacken, and more often than not he finds some unexpected bit of found poetry or cultural kitsch to make the digressions worthwhile. "Before Sunrise" is not a big movie, or one with big ideas, but it is a cut above the banal twentysomething love stories you usually see at the movies. This one, at least, treats young people as real people.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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