On the train to Vienna, from where he is due to fly home the next day, Jesse (Hawke), a young American, starts chatting with Celine (Delpy), a French student who's on her way back to Paris. Small talk becomes flirtation, and when the train arrives in Vienna, he charmingly persuades her to come and spend the day with him. So begins their romantic encounter. With no particular destination in mind, the pair wander around the city – taking in a few sites, stopping at cafés, exchanging backgrounds and life experiences, daring each other to reveal themselves emotionally, propounding half-baked philosophies and feeling that they might be falling in love. In the most romantic of fashions, they kiss for the first time atop the famous Giant Ferris Wheel at sunset. But morning brings the inevitable leave-taking...
A veritable magnum opus, which in coinciding with America's bicentennial celebrations offered a somewhat sceptical commentary on the state of the nation, evoked through the microcosm of a country and Western music festival on which the film's many characters – singers, agents, fans, groupies, journos, politicians, film stars and locals – converge.
The narrative, seemingly chaotic, is in fact supremely subtle and complex in the way it interweaves events, characters, themes and moods; the tone is at once affectionate and scathing; the music is spot-on; the sheer ambition of the whole exhilarating. One of the very greatest films of the post-war period (and perhaps Altman’s most well-known work), and one that it’s almost impossible to imagine being made now.