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Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse)
(No longer in theaters)
Apr 20, 2012
There’s nothing like a film about wayward passions to remind you how differently people feel things. Consider the French drama Goodbye First Love. Some will find it too emotionally intense to endure. Others will experience it as a low-impact talkfest about an annoyingly self-absorbed French person pining à la française for an even more annoying French person. Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve gives a playful nod toward the skeptics in a scene in which its central couple, Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), disagree over a movie. He calls it talky, complacent, and (the worst insult) French. She thinks it’s too deep for him. They could be talking about their own film, which suggests an incompatibility that is positively existential. The problem is that away from culture they’re like animals—the ones that romp in water holes and eat berries off trees and fuck each other into exhaustion. Despite his taste in cinema, she knows he’s the One.
I’m in the camp that finds Goodbye First Love harrowing. We meet the 15-year-old Camille when Sullivan pulls the bedcovers off her naked body. She’s naked a lot, in all senses. She loves her shaggy, rangy boyfriend so much that if he were to leave her, she says, she’d kill him and then herself. That’s a lot of pressure. Sullivan drops out of school and embarks on a ten-month South America sojourn that Camille keeps track of with pins on a map on her bedroom wall. In one letter, he says that he’s almost, at last, on his own unbroken wavelength, adding, “I want you to disappear.” There are no more letters.
Goodbye First Love unfolds over most of a decade, and I can’t remember a shot in which Créton’s Camille smiles. Even making love to Sullivan in an isolated country house, her mouth is so tight and eyes so anxious that you can almost hear her heart pounding at the prospect of losing him. But this is not a film like Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., in which the heroine overdramatizes her loss of equilibrium. After scenes in which Camille weeps quietly and then, rather stoically, swallows pills, she goes on to cut her hair short and enroll in architecture school. Her first big design, of a university, is not user-friendly—more, says an instructor, like a monastery—and an obvious representation of her estrangement. But as she finds a balance between her grief-stricken inner world and the needs of society, she grows her hair and takes up with Lorenz, a much older but charismatic Danish professor (Magne-Håvard Brekke). His lucid convictions draw her out—but can he ever replace the boy who touched where no one else can?
Hansen-Løve—only 31, a former actress, and now partner of writer-director Olivier Assayas—creates a familiar triangle, and the evolution of her heroine’s aesthetic is more than a little schematic. But her touch is glancing, suggestive, the locations conjuring inner states, the art concealed: She gives the impression of breathing her story rather than telling it. The play of soft and hard, willful and helpless, on Créton’s face evokes an abyss of neediness that some of us would rather forget. The last shot of Goodbye First Love is an unwelcome surprise, but I suppose it suits a film that is so powerfully unwelcoming.