Following the critical success of her sophomore feature Father of my Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009), French director Mia Hansen-Løve returns with the incredibly mature and nuanced Goodbye First Love (2011) – a loosely autobiographical examination of the complex emotions that accompany the blossoming romance between young lovers Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky).
Camille is besotted with Sullivan, even going as far as describing him to her mother as “the man of my life”, completely under the belief that “love is the only thing that counts”. Sullivan, however, is far more focused on ‘finding himself’ and is set to leave Camille for a ten month journey of self discovery to South America. Understandably, Camille is distraught with her intense heartbreak, further exacerbated when Sullivan’s letters begin to become less frequent, eventually spelling the end of their turbulent relationship.
By never romanticising youth or layering a nostalgic gloss over proceedings, Hansen-Løve has created an elegant, intelligent and naturalistic insight into the feelings of longing and misery which often befall teenage infatuation. The decision to present Goodbye First Love chronologically allows for a refreshing warts-and-all portrayal of young love which never succumbs to clichéd flashbacks in order to magnify the film’s sentiment.
The casting of Créton only amplifies this taut and honest approach. The French rising star expels a natural beauty, radiating an endearing sense of hazy complacency when happy or hiding a complex collection of crippling emotions behind her detached persona when depressed. It’s this subtle manipulation of the audience by Hansen-Løve and Créton which lures the viewer into the story and helps convey the film’s shifting emotions of lust, despair and heartache.
Relying on a mixture of rich, pastel-shaded imagery and organic symbolism, Goodbye First Love is full of complex scenes which burn on a translucent fuel of hidden meanings. The use of water (especially rivers – including the use of the beautifully lyrical Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling song The Water) helps convey the constantly evolving emotional states of Camille, with Hansen-Løve returning her protagonist to the same rural river bank at each stage of her constantly evolving devotion for Sullivan.
Destined to divide audience in much the same way it has critics, Goodbye First Love relies heavily on your own personal experiences for the film’s powerful depiction of obsession to truly resonate. However, this is clearly something Hansen-Løve is aware of, a sentiment signalled in a scene in which Camille and Sullivan exit a cinema discussing the film they’ve just seen; Camille clearly loved it, yet Sullivan (a young man unable to truly articulate his inner feelings) describes it as “chatty, “complacent” and “too French”.
Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love may well be an acquired taste, however there’s little denying that this hugely talented director is successful in realising and conveying both the complex agony and ecstasy of unrequited love throughout her latest feature.