Richard Linklater's films, so far, have shown a unity of time so disciplined that it would gladden Aristotle's heart. The young writer/director's first feature, Slacker, took place in a day and a night on the streets of Austin, Texas. His second, the '70s period piece Dazed and Confused, took a bunch of high school kids through the last day of school and the evening that followed.
With his new effort, Before Sunrise, Linklater's love of circumscribed time schemes continues. It's a slacker love story about a young American man (Ethan Hawke) and a young Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy of Killing Zoe and White) and a single night in their lives.
Hawke, who's just been dumped by a girlfriend in Madrid, has to kill an evening in Vienna before his morning flight back to the U.S. Delpy is returning to Paris from a visit to her grandmother in Budapest. He invites her to do Vienna with him, and she quickly accepts. They wander the streets, drink wine, play pinball and neck, all the while talking in the endless, enraptured circles of the mutually infatuated. At some point, they hatch the idea that they won't even try to "keep in touch," that they will, instead, try to have a perfect one-night romance. Guess whether they're able to stick to that one. Much about Before Sunrise is admirable. The script, by Linklater and Kim Krizan, contains some funny, beautifully naturalistic dialogue. Linklater's direction is clean and smooth, and Lee Daniel shoots lovely, boldly colored images of the city. The credits note that the film "received financial support from the Vienna Film Financing Fund." Small wonder--it couldn't get a better tourism commercial.
Delpy, fairly described in the film as a "Botticelli angel," is quietly charming. Alas, Hawke is just about equally charmless, and the film is centrally marred by his presence.
He has one good moment, one of his first. When Delpy sits down across the aisle on the train on which they meet, he glances at her, returns to his book, then does an awestruck double take, flabbergasted by her beauty while trying to remain subtle. It's a nice, actorish effect. But when he starts to deliver Linklater's trademark monologues--off-the-wall philosophical reflections and skewed observations--he doesn't bring to them the force of benign obsession that made them funny in Slacker. He seems prissy, defensive, self-impressed.
If, rather than using this conventional pretty boy as his leading man, Linklater had cast the role with one of the crazies from Slacker--if, even, he had played it himself, Before Sunrise might have been a wonderfully loopy romance. Instead, you begin to dread what Delpy will have to go through if she ends up with this snot. When he talks about how she'd come to hate his mannerisms if they had a long relationship, he's making a good point--I was getting a little fed up with him just in the course of the movie.
One of the great strengths of Slacker and Dazed and Confused--which, though a lesser effort than Linklater's debut, is still quite delightful, and improves on repeat viewings--was their human multiplicity, the broad canvas of eccentricity on which Linklater worked. In Before Sunrise, he keeps his focus on the two lovers, to the movie's impoverishment.
A few times, however, for variety, he lets Delpy and Hawke interact with someone they meet on the street--a fortuneteller, a poet--and these are among the film's most pleasing moments. When a couple of actors that they met on a bridge invited them to the avant-garde play they were in, I badly hoped they'd go. It sounded much more interesting than listening to them talk all night.--