Much has been made of the notion that the story of lost love in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise could never happen in an internet-saturated world. But Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), the couple at the center of the film who fall rapidly in love after impulsively getting off a train in Europe together, are actually far more relevant than they appear on the surface.
In the movie, which turns 20 today, Jesse and Céline quite rationally believe this is the only time they will ever see one another, though they both cherish a delusion that it is not. It's 1995 — they don't have have cell phones and they don't exchange contact information. But their love is predicated on an instant wistfulness which has only grown more powerful in the intervening decades that have followed the film's release.
It's become typical to coo over an Instagram of the party we're at before the night has ended, passing around a cell phone to look at the image we've made of this night we're still living. Or to spend more time at a concert looking through the lens of a camera than at the stage itself, thinking about sharing the memories on Facebook before it's done. You have to be just outside of real time to enjoy that sort of thing, in the same space where Jesse and Céline's brief relationship exists.
Walking around Vienna, Jesse tells Céline that knowing he was the result of an accidental pregnancy has been freeing for him — he can enjoy the world as though he is not a part of it because he was not meant to be here. Later, in a church, Céline says she thinks of herself as a "very old woman laying down, about to die," that her "life is just memories." Jesse says he thinks of himself as a 13-year-old boy who "doesn't really know how to be an adult, pretending to live [his] life, taking notes for when [he]'ll really have to do it." Both imagine themselves as outsiders of the lives they're living, a detachment which enables them to feel nostalgia for a moment that is currently happening. Even Jesse's initial proposal that she get off the train with him appeals to that kind of thinking: Céline's night in Vienna with him will be "a gigantic favor to both me and your future husband," he says.
When Céline tells Jesse that her grandmother "spent her whole life dreaming about another man she was always in love with," he responds just as a person with Instagram-stalking experience would: "I guarantee you it was better that way. If she'd ever got to know him, I'm sure he would've disappointed her eventually." In an earlier scene in which Céline takes Jesse to Vienna's Friedhof der Namenlosen — Cemetery of the Nameless — she says to him that if no one you cared about knows that you've died, "it's like not really being dead. People can invent the best and the worst for you." Much like an Instagram feed, the story is better than the reality, which is something they both know and don't want to know.
At the end of the film, Céline and Jesse promise to meet again, because the image of the moment has overpowered them, because they have become so enamored of this moment right now that they are already nostalgic for it. It is already the best night of their lives. And that sentiment is just as applicable in 2015 as it was in 1995.
So when Céline tells Jesse, "I don't want to be a great story," it rings a little hollow. She has, of course, been telling herself a story all along.