Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)

Alfred Hitchcock deplored movies that amounted to “pictures of people talking.” He considered the making of a film containing little action and structured around conversations to be the worst crime a filmmaker could commit. The irony that a work such as NOTORIOUS (1946) essentially fits that description and remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, was apparently lost on the master director. Hitch’s assessment can also be shot down with a viewing of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), a film that is not just a talk fest, but one of the most fascinating and riveting cinematic treats of the 1980s. If the conversation is bright and intriguing… It is with these possibilities in mind that I viewed BEFORE SUNRISE (1995). This very wordy (but never verbose), one hundred minute long acting exercise follows the conversations between a young American named Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Celine, played by Julie Delpy) as they spend a day and night traversing the breathtaking landscape of Vienna in the late Spring.

Jessie (his real name is James but his friends call him Jessie – perhaps because he shoots from the hip), first encounters Celine on a Vienna bound train as they travel through Europe. He is just “traveling around.” She is returning from Hungary where she was visiting her Grandmother, and plans to take the train to Paris. The first shot of the film is a clue that they will be together – at least temporarily: The parallel rails of a train track as the locomotive speeds on its way. Celine and Jessie meet when she changes her seat to avoid a bickering couple (Andrea Eckert and Hanno Poschl). This is another clue: BEFORE SUNRISE will be about relationships, especially the conflicting personalities of men and women. One of the first lines in their conversation will be about conversations, with Celine remarking, “As couples grow older they lose their ability to hear each other.” It seems men lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds and women lose touch with the lower pitched end of the spectrum. While she is referring to a literal loss, her statement could also be interpreted along figurative or symbolic lines, as we recall the arguing couple.

Later, as they ride a tram through Vienna, the subject turns to sex and love. When the couple play a version of twenty questions, Jessie asks about her first sexual attraction. Celine asks if he has ever been in love. This is the eternal divide with women interested in love and men forever obsessed with sex.

The film could also be read as an exploration of the differences between Europeans and Americans. She is cosmopolitan and speaks several languages (including English) while he is a self-described “crude American” who has only mastered English. Celine is preoccupied with stories of her Grandmother and sees herself as an elderly and wise woman (though she is only in her mid twenties.) Jessie thinks of himself as a very young boy and it is laid out clearly: Europe, the older, wiser partner and America the young snot nosed kid, will always be in conflict. Jessie plays the ignorant, ugly American joke to the hilt. When Celine points out the Danube from atop a ferris wheel, he jokes “That’s the river, right?” And he is genuinely cynical. Encountering a fortune-teller on the street, the grandmotherly woman (Erni Mangold) reads Celine’s palm, eliciting disdain from Jessie. Celine, of course, believes in the woman, partially perhaps, because of her respect for the aged. Jessie will have none of it. Affecting a Romany accent, he recreates what he feels a truthful palmist would tell a disappointed old lady. “You’re life will be a tedious collection of hours with no new passions.”

But Celine is falling for him. AS they happen upon an impoverished street poet (Dominik Castell) who asks the couple to suggest a word he will use in a poem (in exchange for a small donation), Celine picks a uniquely American one:”Milkshake.” The poem he creates on the spot is all about relationships and ends with the query “Don’t you know me by now?”

Stopping in a pub, they play pinball while once again discussing love. Both seem to take out some suppressed anger on the machine. Hitting the button with more and more intensity as they take turns, there is a sense of barely subdued violence and perhaps, sexual tension. Jessie: Love is for people afraid to be alone. There’s nothing more selfish!” Later, after leaving the pub, he reveals a paranoid streak when he states, “On some level women don’t mind the idea of destroying a man.” Celine is more philosophical, saying “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”

There is ample discussion about God and the deeper meaning of existence. An emotionally pointed scene has the couple visiting a cemetery. The countless black crucifixes that decorate the landscape of the grounds remind us of comments Jessie made earlier about reincarnation, in which he states his belief that the million or so souls that populated the world at the beginning have splintered into the six or seven billion that exist today. The crosses stretch to the horizon and we are struck by the universality of human existence.

We see the couple working together in a revelatory scene in yet another pub. Jessie talks the bartender (Hayman Maria Buttinger) into giving him a bottle of wine (the broke American is now the panhandler), while Celine steals wine glasses from under the preoccupied barkeeper’s nose. In an isolated park the two share the wine, and apparently sex, but not before much discussion as to whether the latter is a good idea. Jessie, of course, thinks it’s a great one, eventually having his way with Celine.

As morning beckons, Celine and Jessie end up on a deserted street dancing to harpsichord music played by a man in a nearby apartment (Wolfgang Gluxam), just as they danced the night before to “Yakety Sax” at an amusement park. The crude red neck American song has given way to the elegant strains of European classical music. Celine and Jessie have each given up a piece of themselves for the relationship.

At the train station that morning, they agree to meet again “six months from last night.” Originally they intended to keep their evening together a one night affair – something to remember for the rest of their lives – but emotions got the better of them – even the love leery American. In what appears to be a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, Linklatter closes his film with shots of all the places the couple visited during the previous night. Each location is now empty (Ozu frequently ends a scene on a shot of an empty room – creating a feeling of melancholy), except for an old man in the town square and an elderly woman in the park where the couple indulged in the pilfered wine and much debated sexual coupling. No matter our experiences in life, we often end up old and alone. Perhaps it will be a mistake for the two to meet again. I may view the sequels that followed to find out Celine and Jessie’s ultimate opinion of their decision. The continuing conversation would be an interesting one on which to eavesdrop.

CREDITS: Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. WITH: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert, Hanno Poschl, Erin Mangold,Dominik Castell, Hayman Maria Buttinger and Wolfgang Gluxam.

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July 24, 2013 - Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, film directors, film drama, films set in Austria, independent film | , , , , , , , , ,

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