Honest look at early passion
Hansen-Løve’s first two films tackled subjects like family dissolution, addiction, and suicide. Her delicate, intelligent, naturally cinematic treatment of such challenging material has established her, at 30, as one of today’s best young French filmmakers. That recognition evidently has given her the courage to go back to something simpler and more directly autobiographical, Un amour de jeunesse (the French title) — a young woman’s first passionate love. Nothing quite so harsh here as before in the world beyond the sensitive protagonist: some parents separate, perhaps, but happily, it seems; and nobody crashes. There is just the big task of mastering young emotion. The director’s wonderful previous film, The Father of My Children, was more complex, but this one dares to be simple, and to go over material that may seem over-ridden with associations that risk cliché. Its bitter-sweet honesty in examining the traces left on a life by a first love seems essentially French. There is no cliché here. Again the young director approaches big events with bold honesty.
When the film begins the sweet and pretty Camille (Lola Créton) is only 15 and madly in love with a tousle-haired, adorable 19-year-old boy, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). They constantly repeat their declarations of love, and make love, seeming to flow in and out of each other. But though sure of what he wants, Sullivan is uncomfortable in Paris and at the university and has already dropped out and decided to go to South America. After selling a valuable little painting to raise money for the trip he is off, leaving Camille behind. It is supposed to be for ten months.
Sullivan sends eloquent letters, but he can’t bear to call and hear Camille’s voice without being able to touch her. He writes a lot of letters, but then he stops. The film never quite resolves the issue of this departure and separation but there are hints that Sullivan has found Camille too clingy. She is sad, he is happy. Their idyllic trip to the Ardèche together that sun-kissed summer was spoiled because she was so troubled by his travel plan. Her melancholy at the prospect of his departure only hastened it. When he stops writing, she attempts suicide. It’s a moment passed over quickly, however. Sullivan does not come back as promised. Eight years pass. Camille studies architecture. She finds a vocation, and an older lover, her Danish professor, a successful architect, Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke), and she goes to work and moves in with him. The surprise is what happens when Sullivan reappears. As it turns out, it isn’t over quite yet for either of them.
Uurzendowsky and Créton are excellent, attractive, natural, and spontaneous together, and Camille’s experience of architecture is convincingly handled, as are the different personalities of the two men. What’s obviously unrealistic to an almost Brechtian degree is that Camille and Sullivan don’t age in eight years, and some see this as a flaw. Consider, as justification, that the 15-year-old and 23-year-old Camilles wouldn’t look at all different from the viewpoint of a still later Camille. What makes Un amour de jeunesse work, even sing, is the naturalness and confidence and simplicity of Hansen-Love as a filmmaker. The technique is so seamless one wants already to watch the film again, because the nuances (particularly in the acting of the shy but volatile Créton) are complex enough to require multiple viewings.
As in the director’s impressive two first features, the first of them made when she was only 23, there is a significant break in the middle, with the present understood later in terms of the past and the audience’s established awareness of it. Hansen-Løve has done it again, more delicately than ever, making a film that’s both rational and emotional, in the French (and partly New Wave) manner, stating complicated things in a superficially simple way and structuring her tale in a style that emerges as more and more distinctive, but in a native cultural tradition. If Goodbye, First Love isn’t as rich a film as The Father of My Children, it is still a subtle accomplishment, remarkable for its way of working out a past longing in the present.
Goodbye, First Love opened in Paris July 6, 2011, to very good reviews. It also was shown at Locarno (jury special mention), Telluride, Toronto, Chicago, and at the New York Film Festival, screened at the latter for this review. Its US distributor is Sundance Selects, and it will be begin a limited US theatrical release December 9, 2011.