Two young strangers meet on a train traveling through the Austrian countryside. Parisian girl Celine (Julie Delpy) is returning from visiting her grandmother in Budapest. American guy Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is finishing a two-week rail journey around Europe with a flight out of Vienna. They strike up a conversation about everything and nothing, and their attraction is instant. The train arrives in Vienna, and Jesse impulsively asks Celine to join him for the evening.
She takes a chance on a night with a total stranger, and their conversation continues as they walk – from evening to morning – through Vienna. On a tram, along the river, in a cemetery, in a record shop, past grand palaces, on the giant ferris wheel (incidentally the same one seen in 1949 movie The Third Man and 1987's Living Daylights), in a cafe, in a church, back along the river, in a club, in a coffee shop and on a river cruise. As they take in the sights, they awkwardly, tentatively discover more and more about each other.
The location serves as wallpaper to their developing relationship. It's beautiful and appealing but relatively unimportant. In fact it could be any city. But it's a great chance to see Vienna as it really is – not perfectly manicured to suit a storyline.
The conversation feels real (apparently much of it was ad-libbed), and it's easy to imagine yourself in the couple's shoes, walking and talking, interacting with other strangers, beggars, artists and even bellydancers. Observing their surroundings, but really more engrossed in each other.
Try to enjoy the simple story for what it is (some have dismissed it as post-adolescent meanderings), and it rewards you with a gentle and touching love story. And obviously with a great chance to see Austria's capital in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. Scruffy back streets, smoky bars, shady parks, the kinds of places you'd never see on postcards.
Jesse and Celine spend the remainder of the night in a park and in the early hours sit draped across a statue, wondering what they will do next. They part company back at the train station with the same spirit in which they met (I won't spoil it for you, but needless to say there is a sequel, Before Sunset), and the camera revisits all their haunts, now empty.
The sequel Before Sunset is set in Paris, and follows a similar path through a different city. Once again they walk and talk, though this time it's her city – and it's nine years later…