The French title of Mia Hansen-Love’s new film is Un Amour de Jeunesse. A straightforward (if somewhat generic) translation might have been Young Love, but the English version, Goodbye First Love, is an improvement. The movie, Hansen-Love’s third feature (after All Is Forgiven and The Father of My Children), endows each word of that title with equal weight. It examines, with compassion and clarity, a young woman’s discovery of passion and also of the pain, disappointment and partial wisdom that follow.
"It’s because I’m melancholic," Camille (Lola Créton) says to her mother (Valérie Bonneton), explaining the voluptuous, romantic sadness she wears like a carefully chosen shawl. At 15, Camille is prone to such self-dramatizing statements, especially where her boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), is concerned.
"He’s the man of my life," she tells her mother, and her words to him are even more categorical: "I’ll die without you." This makes Sullivan uncomfortable. Though he is devoted to Camille, there are other aspects of life he wants to embrace with at least equal ardor.
When Sullivan, who is a few years older than Camille, drops out of school to take a journey of self-discovery across South America, it is the tragedy of her life. She traces his itinerary with pins on a map hung on her bedroom wall, and reads his letters through tears. But at the same time, almost unconsciously, she steps toward a more independent future, working hard in school and discovering the ambition to be an architect.
Her story stretches out over eight years, through changes in mood and hairstyle, skipping over some important events that are illuminated retrospectively. To say too much about what happens — between Camille’s parents, between her and her Norwegian mentor (Magne-Havard Brekke) — would not be to spoil the plot so much as to disrespect the film’s wonderfully fresh and surprising rhythm.
There is perhaps nothing more conventional than a coming-of-age story, but it is also true that the experience of moving from youth into relative maturity is always specific and unique. So this is very much Camille’s story. Hansen-Love respects the character too much — even when she is silly, naïve or careless — to make her a representative figure of female adolescence. The sex lives of young women are often turned into prurient fantasies, cautionary tales or both at once. Goodbye First Love, like Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s recent Turn Me On, Dammit (a film from Norway that will be reviewed in an upcoming post), resists the usual urges toward moralism, condescension or exploitation.
It also, like Camille herself, has large ambitions somewhat disguised by an approach that at first looks modest, diffident and careful. Hansen-Love seems to catch life as it happens, sometimes in a rush and sometimes with delicious leisureliness (most notably during a brief vacation Sullivan and Camille spend alone at her parents’ country house in the Ardèche region of France). There is nothing ostentatious in this movie, and also, remarkably, nothing false, except perhaps some of the hopes of the earnest young couple at its heart.
Urzendowsky, with his dark curls, fine cheekbones and sad eyes, is a very credible first love, while Créton uncannily captures Camille’s resolution as well as her almost willful vulnerability. Goodbye First Love follows her eager, headlong motion toward a point in her life when she can look backward and move on. Within the swift current of time, it finds eddies of memory and pools of regret. And when it comes to first love, Hansen-Love suggests, goodbye is always au revoir rather than adieu.