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Before Sunrise Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 November 1999

Before Sunrise
Before Sunrise

Warner Home Video
starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
release year: 1985
film rating: Three and a half stars
sound/picture: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Coming from director Richard Linklater, best known for modern teenage comedies like DAZED AND CONFUSED and SLACKER, BEFORE SUNRISE took a lot of people by surprise -- but there weren't many in the theaters to be surprised. This is both surprising, because the movie is intelligent, honest and sincere, and hardly surprising at all, since it's also slow-paced, talky and ultimately not as involving as it keeps promising to be.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a college-age American morosely at loose ends in Europe. He went to Spain to stay with his girlfriend only to find she's dumped him for someone else. He's been wandering about Europe, and as the movie opens, is on a train to Vienna to catch a plane back to the States at dawn the next day. Through realistic circumstances, he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French woman his own age who, fortunately, speaks very fluent, idiomatic English. Somewhat shyly attracted, they start talking about whatever comes into their minds -- parents, death, etc. -- and when he gets off in Vienna, he persuades her to join him.

The rest of the movie consists of them walking about scenic Vienna, getting to know each other, falling more and more in love. But Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan never let the film slide into melodrama; they avoid all contrivances, such as the classic "there's something I need to tell you about me..." dodge. These two young people are exactly as presented, and their circumstances remain as realistic as they are.

That's the great strength of this movie -- its simple, honest realism. Linklater clearly wanted to make a story that was at once deeply romantic, and yet believable, and that he's done. It's very low key; their romantic feelings are stirred and roused, but they never fall into each other's arms in an ecstasy of passion. (It's never clear whether they have sex, for one thing.) The movie is authentic and original, almost daring, in its refusal to bow to movie conventions.
But at the same time, the dialog is never particularly exciting; in an effort to make the long chat between Jesse and Celine sound sponataneous and real, Linklater and Krizan sacrifice some of the beauty of the written word. After all, it's hard to sound realistic if you also sound like a practiced poet, a master of prose. Occasionally, the talk does veer into areas that go beyond sheer gabby realism, as when they begin discussing love and commitment. "God is in the space between" us, one of them says. Magic must lie in the attempt to understand another person; the answer to relationships must be in that attempt.

There's also a quite wonderful scene in which they encounter a disheveled man by the river; he seems to be homeless, but he's obviously not just a common bum -- because in exchange for a little money, he offers to write them a poem including a word they give him. ("Milkshake") When they return later, they're both surprised when his poem turns out to be quite good. Jesse, the pragmatic American, assumes that the street poet already had a poem ready into which he inserted their word. Celine doesn't care; she loves the idea itself.

Jesse, though, is generally more naive than Celine; he's extremely open and unguarded, perhaps more than a little on the rebound from his collapsed relationship. However, he's over-cautious about being suckered by those they meet. Celine is more sophisticated, but she's willing to go along with the predictions of the psychic they meet, and with the poem the street poet writes for them. It's not that she believes the psychic, it's that it's more entertaining, more touching, more romantic to play along with the predictions.

Perhaps the most truthful line in the movie is when Jesse tells Celine that sometimes he gets sick of himself; he just can't stand having only himself for company. He bores himself -- but when he's with her, he's not sick of her.

The only phony moment in the film comes with their goodbyes; this sounds completely written and artificial, and both Hawke and Delpy, excellent throughout, falter here as if they're aware that the lines do not ring true.

The very ending of the film is ambiguous; throughout its length, BEFORE SUNRISE has played its carefully limited game with honesty and truthfulness, and it doesn't falter in the very last few minutes: we do not know if Jesse and Celine ever will meet again. American audiences become frustrated by ambiguity and open-ended stories; they want everything neatly wrapped up. It might be this ultimate refusal to bend to romantic conventions cost the film a larger audience. But it has a solid, if minor reputation, and is likely to gain a following over the years.

Not, however, because of this DVD, which simply presents the movie and the utterly minimal extras of trailer and scene access. Again, Warner Bros. has hurried a disc out without trying to bolster its appeal. A narration track by Linklater would have been particularly welcome. But no, it's just another bare-bones DVD.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital surround
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed & pan&scan versions
special features: Trailer, titles, scene access
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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