Moving with the flow of time, feelings and life
by Fabien Lemercier
24/06/2011 - Knowing how to tell a story is the basis of every cinematic success, but the art of successfully winding up a narrative set over a lengthy timeline requires an ambition, a sense of romantic storytelling and a rigour beyond the reach of directors keen on frenzied action. French director Mia Hansen-Love had already revealed these qualities for shunning showiness all the better to immerse viewers in resolutely human tales in her previous films All Is Forgiven [trailer, film focus] and The Father of My Children [trailer, film focus] (both showcased at Cannes). Her third feature, Goodbye First Love [trailer, film focus], Special Mention of the jury at Locarno, delves deeper into this vein of talent, exploring to great effect the impossibility of coming to terms with the end of a passionate teenage love affair, in a story spanning nine years.
"If you leave me, I’ll kill you and then I’ll kill myself". The setting is Paris, in spring 1999, and pretty high-school student Camille (Lola Créton) is having fun and frolicking about in bed with her boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowky), a student a bit older than her. But a dark cloud hangs over their love affair because Sullivan is leaving in the autumn on a ten-month trip to South America. Camille’s fear of abandonment and Sullivan’s impulsive and evasive character complicate their relationship and lend a charged atmosphere to a summer break in the countryside ("I mean nothing to you – I love you, but you want to be everything and that’s not possible") between arguments and reconciliations.
Then Sullivan leaves and Camille keeps track of his travels through his letters and on a map pinned to her bedroom wall. But their contact dwindles until it is broken off completely during the winter in a final missive that leaves no hope ("I love you, but I want you to disappear"). Camille waits in vain for him to get in touch before resigning herself to the situation in the spring and trying to commit suicide. "You have to turn the page, now" her father advises her and that’s what she tries to do, changing her physical appearance, accepting her solitude and starting an architecture course.
She gradually rebuilds herself psychologically, culminating in a solid and more serene relationship with her lecturer (charismatic Norwegian actor Magne Havard Brekke) and her entry into the world of work. But this new-found balance is jeopardised by Sullivan’s reappearance, eight years after their break-up. For Camille’s feelings haven’t changed ("I will always love you even if I don’t understand why") despite the passage of time…
A subtle portrayal of the turbulent emotions of adolescence, teenage dreams and the painful confrontation between idealism and reality in the transition to adulthood, Goodbye First Love excels particularly in its analysis of the contradictions of love, a mixture of joy and melancholy, freedom and control, intimacy and incomprehension. Cleverly playing on the metaphor with the world of architecture, Hansen-Love evokes the need to rethink everything from darkness, emptiness, the past and memory, in other words from a symbolic death where doubt reigns before the light comes flooding back.
But these abstract, existentialist subtleties only appear on the surface of the film as the director’s primary concern is to recreate life in its apparent simplicity with the greatest lightness and fluidity: the young lovers tease each other, quarrel, make up, grow apart, lose touch and meet again in a dynamic game of changing power balances, as if connected by an invisible elastic band. Spanning nine years with a fine mastery of ellipses, playing with the seasons, alternating scenes of Paris (in the street and indoors), light-filled getaways in the wild natural surroundings of Ardèche and scenes in Berlin and Denmark, Goodbye First Love unfolds as a long journey into a very universal romantic destiny.
But it’s also a film with a highly sophisticated directorial style and ideas, which broaches numerous themes with sensitivity and subtlety (family, studies, the individual and the collective, art and technical considerations, etc), filling its frames with a host of details and making the most of its remarkable European cast (a French actress, a German actor and a Norwegian).
With this captivating feature that hides its hand rather like an iceberg of which only the tip is visible on the surface, with great flair Hansen Love continues to methodically and intuitively build a coherent body of films that now puts her among the small band of French directors to watch very closely in the future.