An all-consuming first love haunts the heart of a young French girl for the good part of decade in “Goodbye First Love,” the deeply satisfying third feature of Gallic scribe-helmer Mia Hansen-Love (“All Is Forgiven,” “Father of My Children”). Achieving an emotional honesty on par with that of her first two features, which also dealt with love, loss and the passage of time, the present pic, filmed with supreme confidence, offers another unapologetically sentimental story stripped to its emotional core. International debut at Locarno should generate solid sales for this impressive, and very French, post-New Wave gem.
Like Hansen-Love’s previous pics, “Goodbye” is divided into several parts, and again suggests that what’s important in a life — or, for that matter, a film, what gives it its energy and deeply felt pockets of emotion — can’t be reduced to any single instant or image, but instead lies in the consideration (and careful juxtaposition) of these instants.
In 1999, Camille (Lola Creton) is 15 years old and head-over-heels in love and lust with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a brooding, husky-voiced boy four years her senior. Too young to be jaded or even realistic about love, the long-haired, open-faced Camille takes her first relationship extremely seriously. But the young couple’s trip to the Ardeche area, which starts off as a languid pastoral, is slowly poisoned by the knowledge that Sullivan has decided to leave for a 10-month tour of South America shortly thereafter.
The film’s tone is close to Camille’s way of first experiencing love and longing. Lines such as “I’ve been waiting for you all my life,” delivered with a straight face, underline how serious and all-consuming a first love can be. Thankfully, Hansen-Love tempers most scenes with a simple reliance on direct sound, with a few low-key, retro-sounding songs used only sparingly.
Sullivan, who has commitment issues, breaks off their relationship from afar. Pic then briefly depicts a breakdown in 2000 before jumping to Camille’s life as an architecture student in 2003, her pixie haircut an effective indication she’s moved on, though an early encounter with a guy she takes home, only to tell him he can’t touch her, indicates she’s still not entirely over Sullivan.
On an architecture trip to Denmark, Camille slowly falls for her eloquent Danish professor, Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke). In many ways, he offers her what Sullivan couldn’t: stability and a future. But theirs is a rapport constructed on reason more than passion, and when Sullivan reappears a few years later, Camille finds herself caught between two extremes.
Hansen-Love’s narrative gently teases out the differences between the men, which are not only expressed in obvious contrasts (younger/older, country/city), but also in the way the director handles the soundtrack and especially the camera, favoring a looser, almost invisible approach for Sullivan and more calculated movements and framing for the professor).
Though the two men are filtered through Camille’s sensibility, the scribe-helmer ensures they are portrayed as individuals rather than abstract opposites. Nuanced perfs from dark, curly-haired German thesp Urzendowsky (“The Way Back”) and his blond, straight-haired Norwegian colleague, Brekke (“Father of My Children”), further move the men away from simple outlines. Caught between them, 19-year-old Creton (“Blue Beard”) steals the show in a role that requires her to continually suggest conflicting emotions, often without resorting to explanatory dialogue. Impact is quietly devastating.
Emotionally and, to an extent, technically, the pic recalls the films of Truffaut and France’s first post-New Wave helmer, Jean Eustache, neither one afraid to tackle complex human sentiments. But considering Hansen-Love’s small but surprisingly consistent oeuvre, and the ease with which she uses the filmmaking tools at her disposal, it’s safe to say she is an auteur in her own right.