Goodbye First Love

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): ***

What's in a name -- or more to the point, in a title? The original French title of Mia Hansen-Løve's third feature (after the OK All Is Forgiven and the much better Father of My Children), Goodbye First Love, is the much simpler Un amour de jeunesse, which translates to "Young Love," or maybe "A Love in Youth." The point of this talented writer/filmmaker's latest movie -- if I am anywhere close to understanding it -- concerns how difficult it is for her heroine, Camille, to actually bid good-bye to this first love. Instead she allows herself to become utterly obsessed with it and its vessel, the hunky young man named Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who keeps telling her, by word and deed, to cool it. But she can't. Not, at least, until the two have undergone what looks like a permanent separation.

The filmmaker, (herself looking hardly past her own time of "first love," at 31) captures the thrill, lust, fright and instability of this exquisite torture like few filmmakers have, from the female point of view, that is -- and in the process puts to shame a piece of (most likely unintentional) tripe like the recent Elles, that purports to explore female sexuality while shoveling a ton of standard male fantasy down our throats. Hansen-Løve's males, as that gender most often does, exhibit self-preservation above all -- pretty much the opposite of Camille's go-for-broke attitude. When deeper feelings threaten to sidetrack Sullivan's immediate needs, the young man simply dispenses with the relationship.

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In her selection of actress (Bluebeard's Lola Créton), the filmmaker has chosen an interesting specimen. Créton embodies single-mindedness very well, and if she has a harder time appearing only 15 years old, so firmly does she grab the emotions of the moment that, for the most part we're convinced. She's even more interesting as her character ages, becoming an architectural student (with clear talent that she may not yet fully understand: she gets a lovely and fair-minded critique on her student housing project that is a pleasure to hear) and then falling into an affair and then a permanent relationship with her married instructor (played by Magne Håvard Brekke), who is soon divorced. Eventually Camille becomes an integral part of this fellow's architecture business.

Moral judgments regarding right and wrong have no particular place in this universe, and if you are given to these, you'll be hard put to find someone with whom to identify as "good." People here follow their strongest needs. Most else (including other people's needs) be damned. This gives the film a particularly European flavor; when any kind of punishment arrives, it is generally self-inflicted via one's own obsession/neurosis.

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Goodbye First Love is a beautiful film to view; the French countryside has seldom looked lovelier, and the excitement and drama of the city is captured well, too (the cinematographer is Stéphane Fontaine). If the movie does not quite scale the heights of Father of My Children, this may be because the subject matter is not nearly as all-out dramatic and encompassing. But as a character study (in which the character is as much obsession as flesh-and-blood), the movie fascinates.

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