Some years ago, on a warm spring night in Austin, Texasthe hometown of the young filmmaker Richard Linklater, who co-wrote and directed the new romantic comedy Before SunriseI watched a friend strolling down a tree-lined street with a girl he'd met that evening. I remember, then as now, the teasing, playful flirtation in their conversation, a sort of touching hesitancy in their walk, and a sense that somehow anything seemed possiblea feeling that the entire world couldn't hold as many possibilities as the next few hours. Richard Linklater's movies make me feel the same way.
Pauline Kael once drew a distinction between the two kinds of film artists: those who make flamboyant use of the medium, and those who make the medium invisible. Linklater is the latter. When Linklater directs, the puppeteer's hand is nowhere in evidence: The camera moves unobtrusively, and the director isn't prone to strobe-light cutting, pseudo-expressionist angles or other film-school tricks. Unlike flashier movies, Linklater's don't evaporate afterward when you're going over them in your mindthey come into focus.
If Linklater's films seem amorphous when you're watching them, it's because he's an experience junkie: He loves new people and new sensations. His first film, Slacker, was a zonked relay race of a movie: The camera was a baton, and it literally passed from one obsessive oddball to another. Linklater used a similar technique in his wonderful high-school comedy . Both films are so full of chance encounters and spontaneous asides that they initially seem messy and unstructured, like a clever drunk's vertiginous ramble. Only afterward, when the many rich moments start to fit together, do you realize how hard Linklater works to sustain the illusion of random, shaggy disarray.
Before Sunrise is at once more polished and less exhilarating than Linklater's previous movies, but it shows a depth of perception Linklater only hinted at before, and it stays with you for a long time afterward. Like his first two films, Before Sunrise takes place during a single overnight period. The protagonists, an American journalist named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French student named Celine (Julie Delpy), meet on a train traveling through Austria; they end up engrossed in each other's company by the time the train arrives in Vienna.
Jesse, due to catch a flight there the next morning, is too intrigued to let the encounter end. Instead, lacking the money for a hotel, he suggests that Celine bum around the city with him for the night; in the morning, they'll part and never see each other again. When she hesitates, his pitch is ingenious: He tells her that if she doesn't, she'll wonder 20 years from now whether she should've acted on some wild impulse in her carefree days. Let me be that wild impulse, he asks. She steps off the train. In Linklater's world, life is a series of choices between the mundane and the unknown, and the latter is always preferable.
Before Sunrise falters slightly in the early scenes on the train: Linklater seems a little embarrassed by having to resort to farcical conventions to put Jesse and Celine together, and he can't quite cover their staginess. The minute Celine decides to get off the train, however, the movie snaps to lifethough not in the usual movie sense. No cars explode, no chicks undress; instead, Celine and Jesse exchange confidences, stroll through museums and carnivals, and watch the lights twinkle on the river. The characters are free to wander, and nobody depicts aimlessness with more charm than Linklater. Before Sunrise is never more enchanting than when Jesse and Celine are left to their own devices, unsure of what to do next and sitting quietly in streets that exude an irresistibly sensual glow.
Where Linklater really succeeds, however, is in capturing the way clever, literate people flirt in an age too cynical and wised-up to accept romantic conventions. When Celine and Jesse stage a mock telephone conversation, each pretending to tell a friend about the evening they've shared, their glibness has just the right undercurrent of awkwardness. The Viennese locations, suffused with warm, tingly light by cinematographer Lee Daniel, only add to their self-consciousnessthey're aware that falling in love in the most romantic city on earth is the corniest thing they could do. And yet they do it anyway.
If Before Sunrise isn't as entertaining as Slacker or , it's because Linklater doesn't have the benefit of an ensemble cast. Ethan Hawke, an actor who usually displays all the appeal of a soggy SOS pad, turns in an acceptable performance overall as Jesse, although sometimes he makes such a convincing self-absorbed jerk that we can't stand being around him. Julie Delpy's Celine is a far more interesting creation: a witty, intelligent woman who's wise enough to see the impossibility of the situation but passionate and curious enough to see it through anyway.
In the morning, after Jesse and Celine's travels have come full circle, there's a wonderful montage of all the places they visited in their nocturnal romantic wanderings: the stern, prosaic daylight hurts like a hangover. That's far from the only detail Before Sunrise that rings poignantly, resoundingly true. Richard Linklater has an unerring gift for choosing the perfect final image, and his talent doesn't fail him here: The movie closes with the wisp of a smile on Julie Delpy's exquisite sleeping face, suggesting that the night's adventure has already begun a bittersweet fade into memory. Before Sunrise seems more substantial the more you think about it. It's the rare romantic comedy that isn't diminished by the harsh light of day.
Slow, Painful Death
Death and the Maiden is a tawdry revenge thriller masquerading as political drama, and a second-rate one at that. Sigourney Weaver stars as a victim of political torture, who, years later, hears a stranger at her doorand recognizes his voice as that of the unseen inquisitor who repeatedly raped and tormented her.
After raising compelling questions about the nature of evil and the psychology of oppression, the movie lapses into gimmicky melodrama. What effective moments the movie has come from Ben Kingsley as the tormentor, who lends credibility and restraint to a role that remains a cipher until the last five minutes. The script, adapted by Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias from Dorfman's play, manipulates the audience's sympathies every which way. The use of real-life horrors (lurid accounts of rape and political torture) gives the material a veneer of importancealthough that doesn't stop the filmmakers from milking Weaver's recollections for suspense. Is this pretentious major-studio pulp the best we can expect from Roman Polanski, who once seemed a director of tremendous talent and vision? To paraphrase a line from one of his earlier, better movies, what have they done to his eyes?
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