Monday, February 8, 2016

Richard Linklater | Before Sunrise

the attempt
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan (screenplay), Richard Linklater (director) Before Sunrise / 1995
The first of Linklater’s (now) trilogy—we can only hope that it might grow into a quartet—of love and marriage, Before Sunrise recounts the simple tale of two young people, Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who, meeting on a train, get off together in Vienna, wandering around for the evening and through the night until sunrise, when he is scheduled to fly out to the US, and she to return to her university, the Sorbonne. 

Nothing that happens is truly eventful. They meet two amateur actors who invite them to a play (inexplicably starring a cow who thinks it may be a dog), pay homage to a small cemetery for people who have died without names,  visit the Prater Ferris wheel (famous for the scene between Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in The Third Man), drop in to gawk at Vienna’s great cathedral, wile away time at several cafes (in one of which Céline has her palm read), watch a belly dancer do what Céline describes as a “birthing dance,” visit a grungy music-dance club, steal a bottle of wine, and make out in the grass. 
      What does matter is their conversation, at times self-conscious and hesitant, at other times adolescently cute, and at still other moments probing and exploratory as they ponder the meaning of their lives and what the future holds for them.

       Although they are both obviously intelligent, neither of them says anything very profound. Yet it is often quite hard to listen in on their dreams and doubts without feelings of joy, yearning, and utter embarrassment for them and ourselves. We are, after all, made to be voyeurs witnessing over their shoulders, so to speak, the very beginning of these kids’ romance. And no matter what the age of the audience, in overhearing their often edgy, occasionally confident and sometimes cynical comments, audience members cannot help but feel like parents who have forgotten about our own first loves.
       Perhaps it is Linklater’s courage in making so much out of so little that finally endears us to his filmmaking. As in his later masterwork Boyhood this director is gutsy enough to let his actors be utterly who they are, somewhat goofy and permanent adolescents who, much like all of us, are trying, nonetheless, to find their identities so they might represent themselves to the world as “grow ups.” As anyone over 50 knows, there is no such thing as a true “grown up.” And this young couple already seems to perceive that we remain children always of the failed people who pretend they are grown up mothers and fathers. Céline’s obviously wealthy parents (her father is an architect) are doting and loving, but still drive her crazy with their attempts to define her own life; Jesse’s parents, obviously quite unhappy in their marriage (they are now divorced), didn’t really want his birth, the fact of which has left him with a sense of being an outsider, which, he argues, makes his life all the more special, something like a gift he hadn’t deserved.
      As in several of his other films, moreover, Before Sunrise attempts—without much success—to get at the heart of the differences between genders, man and woman. Like many of their age, the woman is more mature (Céline often feels like she is an old lady), while Jesse admits to feeling that he is still a boy. He kisses, she observes, like a teenager. But she, on the other hand, is filled with fears (she is daily horrified by the fact of dying) of which Jesse seems free. 
     On the other hand, Jesse, to protect himself, puts up a wall of cynicism, while she is often an open dreamer, readily willing, for example, to believe the fortuneteller’s predictions. 
     This romantic couple even has an argument or two, predicting some of the difficulties we will see rise up between them 18 years later in the director’s Before Midnight of 2013, as the budding-feminist Céline accuses Jesse of being a wounded rooster when he mocks the palm reader and dismisses a vagrant poet, whom they pay to write a poem containing the word “milk-shakes.”

     Yet if this sounds tedious it is the fault of this critic, not the movie itself, which is alternately joyfully resplendent and deeply moving, resulting in about an even mix of laughs and tears. For finally, Linklater’s simple film is thoroughly transcendent in its expression of belief and hope. 
     Although neither of its characters is particularly religious—both seeming to shun traditional religion—they are born with a faith deeper than all the hosanna’s belted out by of a congregation of true believers on an early Sunday morning. For they believe, finally, in one another. Céline expresses it best: “If there is a God,” she hesitantly begins, “it exists in this little space between us,” not in what eventually happens, she qualifies, but “in the attempt,” “the attempt of understanding and sharing.” Belief, she concludes, lies in “the attempt.”
      The film ends with another such “attempt,” the two of them promising to get together again with a few months, a promise which becomes the subject of Linklater’s second of these films, Before Sunset of 2004.

Los Angeles, February 8, 2016

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