Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise.
Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Though it’s hard to fathom today, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise—now cherished by so many as one of the most romantic movies ever made—wasn’t a huge box-office hit upon its release. Though critics loved it, and though it made money because its budget was so modest to begin with, it found its true viewership later on VHS and DVD. Now, a world without Before Sunrise—or its two remarkable sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight—seems almost unimaginable. Two students, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Celine, who is French, is headed home to Paris. Jesse, the quintessential spontaneous American, persuades her to disembark with him in Vienna. Jesse’s flight home leaves in the morning, but he’s almost completely broke; getting a room is out of the question. So these two spend the night roaming the city, talking about what matters to them, their thoughts streaming out like crisscrossing and entwining ribbons. And they begin to fall in love, though this one night in a quietly sparkling city may be the entirety of their story. Of course, now we know how their romance turned out, at least up to a point. But in 1995—or anytime before 2004, when Before Sunset continued their story—we were left to imagine what their future might be, or if they’d have one at all. Taken by itself, Before Sunrise is a movie about the people we are before we have any idea what life and love have in store for us. To watch it, or re-watch it, after you have some life under your belt is like revisiting a past self, and marveling at the walking, talking question mark you used to be.

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