Perhaps Woody Allen’s most celebrated film is Manhattan (USA 1979), a film I have never considered any more than decent and certainly nowhere near the heights Allen has scaled in films like Annie Hall (USA 1977) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). Its most celebrated sequence is a truly beautiful sequence of Allen and Diane Keaton falling in love in front of the river. The sequence’s genius is not in the always-excellent dialogue or Allen’s and Keaton’s pitch-perfect performances. The genius is in Allen’s ability to tell an entire love story in just a few minutes, and to do it largely visually–allowing the Prince of Darkness to tell the story with his lighting just as much as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman do in the script. Before Sunrise very much feels like a two-hour version of that scene done by a director who wanted everyone to know how good of a writer he is and didn’t have Gordon Willis.
The film is quite a simple love story, told over a single night as two tourists, one from the United States and one from France, meet on a train to Vienna and decide to spend the night together. It’s filled with existential angst, literary references, and jokes and exchanges lifted directly from Woody Allen (adding to the feeling that it was that brilliant Manhattan scene stretched out beyond reason), but the film is ultimately nothing more or less than a love story.
The first big problem is that it doesn’t have a point to make while telling its love story. Instead, Linklater and co-screenwriter Kim Krizan rely on the supposed universality of the story to carry the film. (I do feel compelled to point out that this idea that all Americans know what it’s like to go tour Europe and fall in love is extraordinarily pretentious and reeks of upper class privilege. It reminds me of lawyers I met during law school who would ask about when the last time I went to Europe was, not being able to fathom that some people don’t have the money to do that.) If you’re going to do that, using a love story is probably the best way, but it’s a much better idea just to have something to say about love instead of telling a story, just like everything else. There is absolutely nothing that ties the film together other than the narrative, and that’s a problem for any film.
Visually, Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel do very little with this film. First, they play with focus, keeping a shallow focus so that the lead characters remain in focus while the backdrops melt into fuzz until they start paying attention to something in the background and then using a deeper focus. It’s a fine but not really exciting technique. Then, they constantly return to shots of trains passing by either alone or in pairs depending on where in the story we are. This technique is rather annoying, as it is so ham-fisted as to be laughable. You really needed that to tell us what was going on between these two people? It’s all that’s happening! If the film actually had a point, some sort of metaphorical recurring shot like that could be forgiven in spite of its inherent pretentiousness, but it doesn’t, so it can’t.
Acting-wise, the film is actually quite strong. Julie Delpy plays a rather dull character with some thought and depth that makes her work far better than she should have from the writing, giving us a far deeper understanding of who Celine is than Linklater bothers to give us anywhere else. Ethan Hawke, meanwhile, is given a much better drawn character and plays it well–he’s a lonely, damaged, weakened guy and we can see all of that before he tells us anything, with his odd winks and stares and inability to hold himself upright when nobody is looking.
In the end, this film is a great example of the type of film that impresses neophytes and does nothing at all for me: it has some good dialogue, excellent acting, and an easily understandable and relatable story, but it has no point and does nothing visually. Ripping off Woody Allen is not a bad idea, as Rob Reiner can tell you, but borrowing bits and pieces of Woody Allen and completely missing what makes his best work special is not just a bad idea but is completely awful and unwatchable. This film does not work because Linklater is borrowing without understanding what makes what he’s emulating work.
Richard Linklater has been one of those people whom the internet has tried to convince the world is a genius without much evidence, hanging its hat on this film as the ultimate evidence whenever someone is skeptical of the “greatness” of the thoroughly mediocre The School of Rock (USA/Germany 2003). After watching this one, I’m pretty much convinced that Linklater is a capable writer who hasn’t got a visually creative bone in his body. It’s a film not worth watching, particularly when you can watch Gordon Willis and Woody Allen do it better in about a tenth of the time.