Love seldom looks very intimate at the movies anymore. The lyrical neurotic knowingness of an Annie Hall or a Choose Me now seems lost in the past. Today’s audiences tend to fall harder for an overheated mega-soap like The Bodyguard — slick, bombastic, its two stars transforming the mating dance into an Olympian ego war. (It’s telling that the film’s theme song, ”I Will Always Love You,” was performed by costar Whitney Houston as a kind of blaring national anthem of love.) This week, though, two talented young writer-directors offer movies that are throwbacks to that more effusive, I’ve-got-a-crush-on-you spirit. In an age of cynical posturing, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and David Frankel’s Miami Rhapsody are honest valentines.
It’s evident in Linklater’s existing body of work (Dazed and Confused, Slacker) that this 33-year-old filmmaker relishes the sound of people talking. With Before Sunrise, he’s devoted an entire movie to it. On the train to Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a handsomely scruffy American cruising around on a Eurail pass, bumps into Celine (Julie Delpy), a button-cute French college student on her return trip to Paris. He’s smitten — so is she, though she’s cannier about revealing it — and although he’s scheduled to fly back to the States the next day, he invites her to step off the train and explore Vienna with him. She does, and that’s the entire film: two attractive, earnest, loquacious, prematurely wised-up young people wandering around the Old World city as they flirt, joke, bicker, and confess their way to a startlingly tender romantic epiphany.
Small movies can be as daring as big ones, and Linklater, in his offhand way, is working without a net here. Before Sunrise may be the closest an American has come to the discursive talk gamesmanship of Eric Rohmer. Linklater lets the film unfold in long, unblinking takes, as Jesse and Celine wander from the train to a bus to a record store to a cemetery to the famous Ferris wheel from The Third Man to the bars and back-alley hideaways of after-hours Vienna. There’s no ”story” and only a few peripheral minor characters, nothing to sustain our interest beyond the personalities of the two performers and the gradually deepening thrust of their repartee. Any doubts that Hawke is a true star — or a fresh, accomplished actor — should be dispelled by this movie: With his ardent gaze and bohemian-dreamboat style, his way of pouring forth words in an eager communicative rush, he’s sexy and winning, a computer-generation Matt Dillon. Delpy, with her lovely, guileless smile, matches him quip for quip; her avid performance marks a major break from the Huppert-Deneuve school of frozen-faced Continental chic. If Linklater goes to a bit of an extreme here, it’s in making both characters so intelligent and sincere, so ardent and giving, that they seem a little too good to believe. The movie could have used more of his slacker edge. Still, how many filmmakers can be accused of overloading their characters with humanity? At one point Celine wags her finger between herself and Jesse and observes, ”Sometimes, I think if there’s any kind of God, it must be in this space in between.” At its best, Before Sunrise colors in that space, rendering visible the magical air pocket of intimacy.
The moment that Gwyn (Sarah Jessica Parker), the sharp-tongued heroine of Miami Rhapsody, delivers her opening lines straight into the camera, you know you’re entering a suburb of Woody Allenville. Gwyn, an advertising copywriter who holds everything to impossible standards, is engaged to Matt (Gil Bellows), an animal researcher who dotes on her. Everywhere she looks, though, couples are falling apart. Her parents (Mia Farrow and Paul Mazursky), whom she’d assumed had a perfect marriage, are both having affairs. So are her brother (Kevin Pollak) and her sister (Carla Gugino). The surface conceit of Miami Rhapsody is that these imperfect relationships sow the seeds of doubt in Gwyn. The movie’s underlying comic perception is much richer: It’s that Gwyn’s anxieties spring from her own selfish nature, and that boredom, affairs, and commitment neuroses are the natural — indeed, healthy — by-products of modern relationships. Frankel’s dialogue has an infectious snap. The rejoinders he’s written for Gwyn are funny enough to keep us laughing and acid enough to let us see that she’s using her wit to keep life at arm’s length. The cast is uniformly fetching — I especially liked Antonio Banderas as a chivalrous Cuban nurse — and Parker, at once vibrant and snarky, gives her first fully commanding screen performance. She and Frankel have created a refreshingly up-to-the-minute heroine, a deeply romantic woman who nevertheless backs off from commitment — not because she’s scared, exactly, but because she’s earned the bittersweet luxury of refusing to define herself by love. Before Sunrise: A- Miami Rhapsody: A-