Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Thirty-Eight

#38 — Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
Richard Linklater’s earliest films are all very verbal. The people onscreen unleash their varied opinions and theories with a barrage of words. The writer-director had so much to say that he concocted small armies of characters to deliver the details, informing the audience about how Scooby Doo cartoons teach children the merits of bribery or simply to point out all the spooky shit going on in the design of a dollar bill. After thriving with sprawl in his first two features, Linklater found his way to a far more intimate story with Before Sunrise, building on that most tried and true of cinematic storylines, the one that begins “Boy meets girl…”

Ethan Hawke plays a young American traveler who meets a French girl on a train to Vienna. She is played by Julie Delpy. Both adhere to some cultural stereotypes–he is cynical and bold, she is romantic with flashes of petulance–but those characteristics represent mere starting points, initial flavors on broad palettes. As they move through the city of Vienna together they talk, trading histories, dreams, convictions and philosophies. They are discovering each other, awash in the possibility of their time together, mutually charmed by the serendipity that brought them together. This is all the movie is, just two people. They encounter some others along the way–an impromptu poet, some actors promoting their play–brisk acquaintances that only serve to further illustrate the special intensity of their fresh connection. Linklater often lets their conversations play out in long takes, the back and forth uncompromised by the cheat of an edit. It’s as if, like the characters it surveys, the camera can’t bear to turn away, even for a moment.

Love comes so easily, so suddenly in the movies. It arrives as a reward for a action-filled triumph or as the purportedly natural result of some grueling travails. It occurs as narrative convention, a robotic fulfillment of expectation. The leads will fall in love because that’s what happens. It’s often–too often–as simple as that. The love is unearned. Before Sunrise is different. By providing almost voyeuristic insight into his characters’ tender drift towards one another, including all the false starts and setbacks, Linklater inspires a greater level of investment in their relationship, a more pronounced belief in them. The screenplay Linklater wrote with Kim Krizan is dense with all the same sort of dialogue flourish that marked his prior films, but with a greater connection to the inner lives of the characters than before. Linklater moves fully away from expressing himself through the people his films, and has instead managed to properly allow the characters to express themselves. Every line is a personal testimony, a delicate revelation of inner self. These two people are entering soft pleas to be found and held and valued by the other. As the best films do, Before Sunrise touches upon the universal by focusing on the specific. Two people fall in love, and in their enthusiasm, intellectualism and effervescence, they stand in for any number of other romances, any number of magical times when hearts become unexpectedly intertwined.

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