Saturday, February 21, 2009

Before Sunrise

The best romantic films are always the simplest, aren't they? Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Chasing Amy, they all keep the conflicts within the bounds of realism, even with the exaggerations and hyperbole of comedy. There's very little funny about actual romance, of genuine "true love," so the best filmmakers do not attempt to inject it with some ill-fitting "wackiness." Richard Linklater's 1995 opus Before Sunrise adheres to this formula, and the result is one of the greatest depiction of love ever made by someone not named Woody Allen.

Plot-wise, Before Sunrise is about as simple as it gets: American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets French Céline (Julie Delpy) meet on a train bound for Vienna, and spend the next 12 hours walking around the city, talking. Talking about what? You know, stuff. Personal information, world views, tastes, whatever the rambling conversation touches upon next. Along the way they meet a few people, but this is the story of these two people and these two alone.

But do not let this simplistic plot description fool you: Before Sunrise offers up some of the most gorgeous and real love I've ever witnessed in a film. Jesse and Céline do not speak in the witticisms and guarded soliloquies of Kevin Smith and Woody Allen, preferring instead to stumble through a conversation the way normal people do: sometimes they hit upon an idea they can wax almost poetic on for lengthy stretches of time, and sometimes a moment ends in an awkward lull of uncertainty. But those lulls only make the film bold, as you can't help but feel Linklater wrote them that way.

As Jesse and Céline walk through Vienna, we see one of the most beautiful cities in the world as they do: in tiny bursts. Linklater does not pan over the gorgeous landmarks or the city as a whole, he ambles into cafés and street shows. When we do get larger snapshots of the city's beauty, it blends with the characters' story so as to seem simultaneously mundane and profound. Linklater paints such a vivid portrait of the city that you'd swear he lived there. He basically takes an extraordinary city and makes it ordinary, which makes perfect sense when you consider the character. Neither of them are Italian, both are learned and arty but not pretentious, and neither of them stand out in the town. Jesse and Céline do not represent archetypes because they sum up too many people to fit into one classification.

Peripheral characters waft in and out of the isolated world of these two, mainly helping the new couple towards their next moment of insight. A fortune teller and two street performers seem as friendly, warm and inviting as the city itself. There's also a beggar who asks not for money but a single word, which he will then construct into a poem. Céline settles on the word "milkshake," as good a word as any. These minor figures, like Jesse and Céline, seem less like characters than abstracts, a part of the moment rather than something that stands outside it.

The film ends not with wild passion and the acknowledgement of true love, but with the more pragmatic realization that in the morning both will be back on a train heading towards their separate lives. Then the story takes one last turn, a simple vow that offers hope to their relationship even as we sense it will not be honored. But that does not make the film any less sweet, only more real. Then again, I must be at least somewhat wrong about my pessimism since Linklater finally made a sequel in 2004 (which just jumped to the top of my list of films to watch).

Before Sunrise is the kind of movie that would not only have not succeeded, but failed infamously had the pieces not been so meticulously crafted to look spontaneous. It takes a lot of gall to make moments intentionally boring, but Linklater structures everything so well that it only adds to the entertainment. But, of course, a great deal rides on the actors, and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so perfect for their roles that their conversations seem completely natural and improvised. Jesse and Céline ultimately strike me as the kind of characters who almost realize that they're in a movie, and both are smart enough to hate all the clichés. Therefore, they rebel against them, and we're lucky enough to be carried along while they do.

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