Title: Goodbye First Love
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Starring: Lola Créton, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Magne-Havard Brekke, Valérie Bonneton, Serge Renko, Ozay Fecht, Max Ricat
There’s no one way to tell a love story. Often, romances are recounted on the big screen out of order, to present the happiest of times and the low points without explicitly distinguishing the two. Cinematic examples range from Annie Hall to 500 Days of Summer to Peter and Vandy, and many, many more. That tactic effectively captures what makes the relationship work, the spark and the connection, by citing instances of true delight and weaving them into a grander universe in which these two people exist just to be with each other. Organizing a chronology in such a manner can be informative, but it can also be manipulative and even deceptive.
Goodbye First Love, the new film from director Mia Hansen-Love, tells its story in an entirely straightforward fashion, starting at the beginning, skipping time only in a forward direction through the middle, and culminating at the eventual end. Laying out its plot in such a way permits the viewer to experience the joy and disappointment along with its protagonists as the emotions first emerge rather than to blend all the feelings into one large canvas and then pull them out at random to paint a bigger picture. Though it might not be considered especially creative, the approach is sincere and effective.
Like Hansen-Love’s previous film, Father of My Children, much of the story plays out without the title character. Most love stories have two protagonists, but this film essentially has just one, since the referenced first love plays only a supporting part in his own story. The film opens with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) acting distant and uninterested in Camille (Lola Créton), while she clearly wants more from their relationship than he does. His subsequent departure to South America maintains the same dynamic, as he sends letters to her that indicate mild sentiment but fail to match Camille’s affection. Camille hangs on to her connection to Sullivan for some time, but a romance with only one player putting forth any effort can’t last forever.
After substantial time has passed, Camille becomes the film’s sole focus. Her story proceeds as she slowly begins to forget about Sullivan, pursuing her dreams as she becomes a mature adult and begins a romance with an architecture professor. The film’s title, however, proves immutable, and Sullivan eventually returns to reenter Camille’s life, causing her to fall back in love with him almost instantly. Not knowing what happened to Sullivan during their time apart actually serves to make his reappearance more enticing, since Camille has grown considerably and he appears seemingly unchanged from his juvenile self. Camille has become a new woman, and she stands to fall back into the same pattern in which she was trapped at an earlier stage in her life.
Hansen-Love is extraordinarily capable of capturing love and devotion, both familial, in her last film, and romantic, in this one. The feelings, both genuine and artificial, expressed and displayed by Camille and Sullivan are effortlessly conveyed, and their chemistry requires similarly little work on the part of the actors. By contrast, Camille’s relationship with her professor feels devoid of true passion, something that emerges in mere moments when Camille and Sullivan share the screen, even when Sullivan seems reluctant to give of himself to make Camille happy. Créton is a captivating actress, projecting infinite emotion on her face without revealing too much, and it’s her subtle performance that makes Camille a compelling protagonist. Less is demanded of Urzendowsky, but he too embodies his character with the appropriate sensibility and detachment that makes him so desirable to his first love. The film itself is as rich and dense as its characters, but not quite as mesmerizing. At 110 minutes, the film charts a long voyage and includes some less memorable moments. As a commentary on romance, it’s a success, and as a film, it approaches, and occasionally reaches, a similar level of meaning.
Written by: Abe Fried-Tanzer