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Afternoon Delight

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ichard Linklater’s 1995 romance Before Sunrise was a Gen-X nerd’s wet dream — the fantasy of every male English major with a Eurail card and a Pavement CD in his Eastpak. Ethan Hawke, as a young, scrawny, wannabe novelist, booked his summer in Europe, then suffered the classic tragic break-up, and set off on his own, with a novel to read on the train. Onboard somewhere in the middle of the continent, he met a luminous and beautiful French girl (Julie Delpy) who fell in love with him — for a day. The two talked and talked — he in his honors-student mania, she in her sexy French lilt. For an afternoon, they fell in love, and at the end of the day, flush-faced in love and romantically swearing off the exchange of phone numbers, they promised to meet at the same Viennese train station six months later. In Before Sunset, the two reunite —in a Paris bookstore, as Hawke autographs copies of the book he’s written about their fling. Time’s passed; Hawke’s slipped into an unhappy marriage (yes, there are oblique Uma references), while Delpy’s single, and saving the world, just as she promised in the first film. They grasp another afternoon, and ramble on through the streets of Paris, inane words spilling from their mouths like promises. (I can’t bear to spoil the mystery of their reunion.) In fact, Before Sunset is a love-letter to all the ludicrous things you’ve ever said to get into someone’s pants. And if the lines Hawke and Delpy both scripted and improvised with Linklater are sometimes awful and embarrassing, it’s all part of this pitch-perfect evocation of wordy, nerdy love. Every time the pseudo-philosophical rambling begins to sound like a grad-student edition of Blind Date, Hawke and Delpy deliver it with such casual grace that I buy it, knowing that, at some point, I’ve probably said worse, and with less style. Take this lovely moment, early-on, when Hawke offers up the lamest line ever delivered in a French café. “Do I look the same?” Julie Delpy asks. Hawke leans back, clearly smitten, barely hiding a goofy smile. “Well, I’d have to see you naked first …” It’s an awful line — a cringe moment. And if Delpy didn’t throw her hands up and roll her eyes and if Hawke didn’t lean back just so, playing the self-satisfied literary prick he is, it would all be intolerable. But somehow, unlike the pretentious dialogue in Linklater’s Waking Life, it works. The two pass goofy glances back and forth like students sneaking silly notes across the the back-row of class, so that by the time Hawke (in his best performance to date) convinces her to release those blonde tresses pinned on top of her head, you’re prepared to be devastated. The film skitters along like some clumsy but inevitable courtship, with Hawke and Delpy delivering an old-fashioned romantic thrill that’s been absent lately — the simple rush of watching two actors fall in love, again.  

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