Goodbye First Love is one of those films that will polarise its audience in terms of personality. If you are a type A Alpha male, you will most probably find this tale of young love and lost innocence to be unbearably slow and insipid. If you are the sensitive type B, you may be charmed by a delicate, low-keyed drama.
Being not inclined towards options A or B, I can understand how some people would react to this film with irritation or impatience, but it will reward those who take a more sympathetic approach. Much of Mia Hansen-Love’s third feature is filtered through the consciousness of Camille (Lola Créton), who is fifteen at the start of proceedings and in her early twenties at the end. If you can get inside Camille’s head you have every chance of enjoying this film. This is not a straighforward task as she is introverted and obstinate: a girl who gives little away, but feels everything very deeply.
Fifteen-year-old Camille is in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young man of approximately the same age. In our broad-minded era that means she is sleeping with him with the full complicity of her parents. Already we realise that one of the cinema’s favourite taboos has been thrown out. Virginity, and sex in general, is a non-issue. There is no dance of shame and temptation, no agonies of remorse, no parental anger. Neither Camille nor Sullivan’s families are the least bit concerned by this side of the relationship.
The problem is that Sullivan is restless. He is planning a long trip through South America with a couple of mates. Camille is heartbroken at the thought of him disappearing for a year or so, but he is determined to go.
For the first months he writes long, heartfelt letters, then time and distance start to tell. He falls silent, she grows morose. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, Camille refocuses. Time goes by and we find her working at part-time jobs and studying architecture. She begins a relationship with Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke), a guru-like professor from Norway, which makes her feel happy and fulfilled. But Sullivan will re-enter her life and her youthful longings will be rekindled.
That’s about all there is to the story. The interest lies in the way the action unravels. Camille is so persistently deadpan that it’s hard to believe in the emotional turbulence at play beneath the surface. Sullivan is an even more unlikely proposition: a knockabout that drops out of school, who talks like a philosopher and writes love letters like a lyric poet.
“Oh that’s just French,” someone told me. In fact, it’s just our wishful view of the French. We would like to believe that in France even teenage high school drop-outs are masters of rhetoric and connoisseurs of passion. It’s a far-fetched idea, but for the purposes of this movie one may momentarily suspend disbelief.
One of the appealing aspects of Goodbye First Love is that all the characters are an odd mixture of high romance and understatement. Camille is eaten up with lovesickness but barely cracks a smile. Sullivan is yearning for Camille, but manages to walk away on more than one occasion. Lorenz initially comes across as an unloveable wanker, giving a cryptic speech about the word “glimmer”, after reading a text by Tadao Ando. But as as the story progresses, we see him as a sensitive individual.
No character is a cliché, no-one is seen in their entirety. Hansen-Love keeps us on the sidelines, wondering where this fractured love story is leading. Don’t expect a Shakespearian tragedy, it’s just French.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 31, 2012
Goodbye First Love, France, Rated M, 110 minutes