A train rushes from Budapest to Vienna through a verdant fold of countryside, the hills spotted with white houses and wild pear trees. A wide river snakes beneath a bridge, the train rattling rhythmically in soft contrast to the music accompanying the scene; it’s the prologue to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a Baroque opera about a doomed affair between the queen of Carthage and a Trojan hero. It paints the moment with a fit of elegant strings. It’s very European. There’s also a faint strain of melancholy.
This is the opening scene of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. On the train, two strangers will soon meet. Jesse ( Ethan Hawke), an American man, looks out the window while idly thumbing through Klaus Kinski’s autobiography All I Need Is Love, a present-tense tale of love, sex, and insanity. Céline (Julie Delpy), a French woman, sits next to an arguing Austrian couple. She’s also reading a book, Madame Edwarda; Le Mort; Histoire de l’œil, a collection of short stories by Georges Bataille–more tales of madness and passion. Already, Jesse and Céline are immersed in the imperfection of romantic love. The chaos it wreaks, the storms it conjures. They don’t yet know that their fateful interaction will begin a decades-long story not unlike the ones they’re reading. That one day they’ll be that fighting old couple on a train.
Before Sunrise celebrates its 25th anniversary January 27. A quarter of a century later, and the story of Jesse and Céline is as intoxicating and transient as it was during its wintry Sundance debut. Linklater based the film on his own experience with a woman named Amy, who he met by chance on a train from New York City to Austin. They spent a day in Philadelphia, similar to Jesse and Céline’s 24-hour odyssey through Vienna. The “what could have been” of their fleeting moment together haunts Before Sunrise, and its eventual sequels: Before Sunset and Before Midnight. A trilogy about the overwhelming largeness of fateful encounters, contrasted by the minutiae of conversations and flirtations between two human beings. (In 2010, Linklater learned that Amy died in a motorcycle accident a few years after they met. He dedicated Before Midnight to her.)
The film exists in those interactive crevices; the awkwardness of first meetings, the fumbling of words around a person you find attractive, subtle looks and provocations. Jesse and Céline find a likeness in one another and take to the café cart of the train, where their relationship blossoms. They talk about language, travel, relationships. He’s jetting about Europe on the train, without an itinerary. She’s on her way to Paris after visiting her grandmother in Budapest. She agrees to join him in Vienna as he can’t afford a hotel and flies out in the morning. They wander through the city, meeting strangers, taking in the sights, getting to know each other. At the top of the Wiener Riesenrad they share their first tender kiss.
Their brief love affair—one that stretches through the course of the movie like a pleasant yawn—is soft and pastel. Colors blurring together. Hands grazing, hair flowing in the breeze, day dulling into night. They go to a church, they go to a bar. A man on the Donaukanal writes them a poem:
Oh, baby, with your pretty face
Drop a tear in my wine glass
Look at those big eyes
See what you mean to me:
Sweet cakes and milkshakes
I’m a delusion angel
I’m a fantasy parade
I want you to know what I think,
Don’t want you to guess anymore
You have no idea where I came from
You have no idea where we’re going
Lodged in life like branches on the river
Flowing downstream, caught in the current
I’ll carry you, you’ll carry me
That’s how it could be, don’t you know me?
Don’t you know me by now?
Just like love, it’s nonsensical but romantic; pretty words and protestations of grandeur. They both seem touched by it, how this stranger can see right into their story: You have no idea where I came from. And they don’t. Not really. Their hours together are intimate and full of self-expression and confessions, but time is how love blossoms. That first day is only a seedling.
But seedlings grow gardens, and that is what we witness in Before Sunrise. That is why we are soaked into the simple pleasures of its world. Because we all know what it is to plant that seed, in some shape or form. We know what it means to walk through a city with a person we love—even metaphorically, or in the landscape of dreams—and wish for something as pure as what Jesse and Céline conjure in their first moments together. The foundation of a beautiful garden. One that blossoms, wilts, and grows again in the two films that follow.
It’s one of the best stories about love ever depicted, not because it’s so beautifully acted, and not because of the Vienna backdrop or even the fluidity with which it moves. ( Most of the dialogue was rewritten by Hawke and Delpy.) It’s how precisely it nails the tenor of chemistry, a combination of ingredients so perfect it hurts. If the entire movie can be summed up in one moment, it’s the scene where Céline lets her guard down and admits that despite her feminism and strong will, what she wants most of all is to be loved.
“I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood and not making it look like my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone and being loved means so much to me. I always make fun of it and stuff, but isn’t everything we’re doing in life a way to be loved a little more?”
Her mini monologue is a distillation of the movie’s core. It captures, so sweetly, a basic human desire. Jesse and Céline part ways in the final moments with the promise of meeting again. In the sequel, we learn they missed that date—but they find each other again. And they make it last this time. Through hardship and distrust, through the tides of change, through parenthood and a love that morphs seasonally, ripening into something forever. Before Sunrise started the forever, and it’ll last that way, too.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures