When movies try to portray how people fall in love, or out of it, they typically erect a scaffolding of contrivances that bears little relationship to what really happens. Think of Scarlett O'Hara's passions, fanned by wartime deprivation and burning hotter than Atlanta; the chain of coincidences that brings Bogie and Bergman back together, then just as quickly apart; or all the maneuvering required to rig up a chance encounter between a society girl and a destitute artist aboard the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage. Less dramatic, maybe, but no less a phenomenon is the commonplace miracle of love — a process whose universal simplicity, yet individual complexity, is too mysterious to wind up neatly by the third act. By inflating it with artificial drama, while losing sight of its humble power, the cinema betrays love.
That can't be said of Goodbye First Love, the sublime third feature by French actress turned filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve (The Father of My Children). It's even more of a triumph because movies about love between young people are so often false and sentimental, compounded by a patronizing treatment of adolescent emotion as a precious whim. The questions Hansen-Love asks of her young protagonists, by comparison, cut to the heart: Are longing and heartache any less real for being born from naivete? Is teenage infatuation something we grow out of, or a prolonged condition we carry into our adult lives?
The movie introduces 15-year-old Camille (Lola Créton, from Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard) in 1999, at the height of her infatuation with her charming yet preoccupied older boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Though Sullivan seems to reciprocate Camille's love, his extra years put him closer to adulthood than his lover, and distracted by the world now at his feet. In the spirit of the titular character from Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (after which we may assume he was named), he hastily drops his college courses, sells an heirloom, and departs for a 10-month trek through South America. Neither he, she, nor we know it will become indefinite.
Before he leaves, however, they share a final idyllic weekend together at Camille's family's summer home. It is in these bittersweet moments, in the twilight of their togetherness, that Hansen-Løve's vision of a complicated, vividly real love emerges. Camille and Sullivan's emotions aren't played off each other for the sake of melodrama, but allowed to intertwine as much as they interfere with each other — like overgrown vines forming an entanglement that time may or may not be strong enough to sever. The movie will probe that connection over the next eight years of Camille's life — from her devastated state after the separation to her growth into an adult with new passions and trials. Inevitably, she and Sullivan will cross paths again, testing her intense first love against a new, more complicated one for a significantly older professor.
Hansen-Løve's work always contains a barely obscured element of autobiography, so it's no surprise that Camille's relationship with this mentor figure parallels that of her own with her filmmaking colleague Olivier Assayas. At times Goodbye First Love even feels informed by the bucolic generational milieu of his 2008 feature Summer Hours. Indeed, the film's closing is announced by Johnny Flynn & Laura Marling's "The Water," a meandering British folk melody that calls to mind the way The Incredible String Band's "Little Cloud" perfectly punctuates the end of Assayas' film. At only 31, Mia Hansen-Løve has accomplished three features and several shorts, all of which adeptly portray the ways that love can be at once familiar yet extraordinary, delicate yet indomitable. Those serve as apt descriptions of her work in general, and this remarkable film in particular.
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