Perfect love on the night train

RICHARD LINKLATER'S Before Sunrise (15) opens with a shot of sunlit rails flickering behind a speeding train - a bright geometric grid that looks as if it has been painted by Bridget Riley. Your first thought is of Hitchcock, and Strangers on a Train, which also starts on the rails. But Hitchcock's tracks criss-crossed, tortuously meeting and separating in the manner of his wretched heroes. After Hitch, we have tended to suppose that anyone we meet on a train must have murder in mind. That is until Richard Linklater, who gives us a movie as bright and airy as Strangers on a Train is sombre and stuffy. Where Hitchcock's heroes exchanged murders, Linklater's swap memories and that strange kind of grand small-talk - about love, death, sex and the meaning of life - which is perhaps too deep to go into with anyone you've known for more than 24 hours. Within minutes we have left Hitchcock huffing in the steam era, and are clutching our ticket to a destination of sheer bliss.

David O Selznick once suggested to Graham Greene that he re-title The Third Man something catchier - like A Night in Vienna. It would fit Before Sunrise, whose plot is minimal. Two laid-back souls seeking peace from a squabbling German couple in their Eurail carriage, chat in the buffet car. After a while, he (an American played by Ethan Hawke) suggests that she (the French beauty, Julie Delpy) might help him traipse away the night, walking around Vienna, waiting for his morning connection. Such is their obvious chemistry, it appears natural rather than crazy when she accepts. Only when disembarking do they think to ask each others' names: Jesse and Celine. Vienna throws up incident - a hilarious pair of pretentious drama students, a beggar who offers verse for donations, a gypsy fortune- teller - but no "action". Linklater is too smart to stage cheap stunts to kick-start the story. He knows the greatest drama lies in the journey into character, and in love's delicate unfurling.

You begin to know the characters, then they surprise you. She is solid and pragmatic, for all her idealistic talk - an angel with clipped wings. Hawke's Jesse, with his wild ambitions, always daring more, is a deceptively intense American dreamer. But as night falls and the emotions swell, we begin to discern something more in him: a cynicism that only just stays the right side of charming. His roguish dismissal of her superstitious awe at the fortune-teller, and her idealistic notions of love, looks about to sour their relationship. And one of the joys of the film is in watching tiny clouds of doubt float across Delpy's luminously clear countenance.

Nothing in the off-beat careers of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke has quite prepared us for their astounding performances here. Utterly natural and devastatingly charming, they capture every nuance of a script that in two hours of non-stop chat never misses a beat. There is a scene when the two listen together in a shop to a pop record (serendipitously reminiscent of the beautiful listening-booth scene in Three Colours: Red). The delineation of their responses is thrillingly precise. She is moved but too self-conscious to admit it, her eyelashes fluttering; he, slightly embarrassed but wondering whether to kiss her. This is pure cinema, and there won't be a more delightful romantic moment all year, unless it's the one later on, when the lovers imagine what the reaction back home will be. In a caf they play at calling home, and Delpy puts on the Beavis and Butthead drawl she reckons Hawke's mates might have.

The trivial never stops flirting with the profound, like the lovers with each other. The film's fluffy feel belies its intellectual rigour and scope. Among other things, the movie is a casually brilliant exploration of the nature of art. The finite time the lovers have together comes to represent the frame of a work of art, linear or temporal, which marks out meaning in the chaos of life. This couple, sealed in their private night, are artists creating their own fiction, which is the film. It is no coincidence that Linklater gives Julie Delpy the name Celine. Jacques Rivette's Celine et Julie vont en bateau (1974) is the cinema's greatest treatment of Linklater's theme.

This is the fourth feature from the 33-year-old Texan. The most widely released of the earlier three, Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), were sprawling ensemble pieces, amiable bordering on aimless. They suggested a generosity towards life which has come richly to fruition in Before Sunrise. The burghers of Austin, Texas, should keep a tender eye on Linklater. He may be his generation's Renoir.

The themes of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (18) are mournfully appropriate to its director Roman Polanski's life and work: political oppression, rape and blind vengeance. Dorfman's play, set in "a country in South America [closely resembling his native Chile] ... after the fall of the dictatorship", feels like Polanski's homeland. The play is an edgy trio in the manner of Polanski's dazzling early film Knife in the Water (1962). A knock on the door of a couple of ex-dissidents (Stuart Wilson and Sigourney Weaver), one stormy night, heralds the arrival of a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who may have tortured and raped her during the dictatorship. Bent on vengeance, or at least a confession, she binds and gags him, interrogating him at gunpoint, while her husband wonders whether she has become the moral equivalent of her persecutors.

There are those who have hailed this as a return to form for Polanski. It is certainly a return to sanity after Bitter Moon. And Polanski shows some of the old lurching menace, deftly switching mood from foreboding to terror. He also draws out a fine performance from Ben Kingsley as the alleged villain, with snorting laugh, quotations from Nietzsche (always a bad sign) and a terror that reeks of guilt. But Polanski has not removed all the staginess from the stage play. What was terrifyingly hidden in Knife in the Water is here banally explicit. Lines like "But it's time for me to reclaim my Schubert", which might have had resonance in the theatre, ring hollow on film. Worse, they're delivered by Sigourney Weaver, who is unable to suggest the agony beneath her fury. When Weaver talks about receiving electric-shock treatment through a metal penis, it is the performance rather than the torture that makes you wince.

Outbreak (PG) is a vastly entertaining killer-virus thriller in the manner of The Andromeda Strain. Only this time the lethal bug has arrived not from outer space, but Africa, "hosted" by an illegally imported monkey. If not checked, it could wipe out the whole of America within days. There's only one man for the job. Enter Dustin Hoffman in low-crotch orange plastic trousers and space helmet (resembling Woody Allen in Sleeper). But Hoffman's superiors (including Donald Sutherland) are more interested in biological warfare than in developing a vaccine against the virus. They plan to "vaporise" the quarantined Californian town. Time for Hoffman's righteous indignation number: "Don't threaten me. And don't threaten my men!" And so it goes on, spiralling into ever more absurdity, but, thanks to the direction of Wolfgang Petersen, who provides one peerless helicopter chase, keeping us gripped.

Grard Depardieu sleepwalks through Le Colonel Chabert (PG) as if he had played the part before. He almost has, as this yarn of a man, believed dead in the Napoleonic wars, returning home to claim his wife (Fanny Ardant) and property has strong resemblances to The Return of Martin Guerre. It is chiefly distinguished by an impish performance from Fabrice Luchini, as the lawyer who represents both Depardieu and Ardant, and some extraordinary flashbacks to the devastation of the Russian campaign. The director, Yves Angelo (a former cinematographer) produces eerie tableaux of snow-bound cavalry charges, in which the only sounds we hear are a plaintive piano and the thud of the horses hooves, before the clang and clamour of carnage.

In the Review: Depardieu (page 18) and Kingsley (page 27) interviewed; cinema details, page 82.