Director Mia Hansen-Love is only 30 years old, but her three films already contain textures sharply attuned to the experiences of a long life. This may have something to do with her close kinship to Olivier Assayas, who cast her in "Late August, Early September" as well as "Les destinées," reportedly kickstarting her interest in filmmaking and helping establish her own directorial style as well. (The two are now engaged and have a child.)
Hansen-Love's last feature, "The Father of My Children," was a tragic story of personal obsession with a structural surprise at the midway point that broadened its scope, exploring the resolve of a tortured auteur's offspring when faced with his shattered legacy. By contrast, Hansen-Love's third feature, "Goodbye First Love," folds in on itself: The story of a teen romance that won't die, it holds so tightly to feelings of lovesickness that it eventually inhabits them.
The teen romance at the center of "Goodbye First Love" imbues it with a nostalgic atmosphere. In that regard, it echoes Assayas' "Summer Hours" by lyrically evaluating a single character's emotional trajectory over the course of several years. Opening in 1999, the story follows 15-year-old Camille (Lola Créton) and her mad love affair with the equally passionate 19-year-old Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). But Sullivan has other passions as well, including a desire to travel the world by himself, which troubles the hyper-romantic Camille to no end. "I cry because I'm melancholic," she moans to her cynical mother, who amusingly suggests she just go watch a movie. Instead, Camille pops some pills and winds up in the hospital, buried in grief before deciding to move on. Or does she?
Years pass by with the abruptness of a scene change, maintaining the sense that little about Camille's sentiments have shifted. Still obsessed with the long-absent Sullivan, the slightly older woman falls into a loveless affair with her architecture teacher and attempts to move on, right in time for Sullivan to return to the scene. In a predictably quirky romance, Sullivan's arrival might play like a late act twist, but Hansen-Love takes a quieter approach.
Their passions quickly rekindled, Camille forgives and forgets her previous heartbreak for the sake of reliving the excitement of her original affair. Tenderly embodied by relative newcomer Créton (who also appeared in Catherine Breillat's "Bluebeard"), Camille is a fascinatingly sympathetic creation, slave to her destructive whims to matter how much everyone around her calls them out.
Unfortunately, since Hansen-Love never stays far from observing her delicate heroine, "Goodbye First Love" lacks a dramatic edge to keep up with its profound characterizations. On the one hand, the movie works as a relatively simplistic two-hander about a couple fated to repeat the same ups and downs indefinitely, begging comparisons to Maren Ade's recent talky romance "Everyone Else," although neither Camille nor Sullivan have the verbal acuity to properly verbalize their problems in the same fashion. (They do try quite a bit.) In both movies, however, one of the character's obsession with architecture appears to reflect a need to compartmentalize the world as a means of making up for an inability to do the same thing for their intangible feelings.
But "Goodbye First Love" derives its chief strength from the dichotomy drawn between Camille's perspective and Hansen-Love's observation of it. The director sympathizes with her creation (and presumably draws from real life to create her) while allowing the pathological dimension of her obsession with Sullivan to critique inexperienced romantic desire. In that regard, it treads ground similar to Drake Doremos' acclaimed Sundance entry "Like Crazy," a far more conventional look at the strain of long distant relationships.
Whereas "Like Crazy" works hard to make its young lovers appear destined for each other as a typical means of making the inevitable heartbreak that much harder to take, "Goodbye First Love" acknowledges the challenge of making characters both real and likable at once: When Camille and Sullivan see a movie together, Sullivan complains that "the actors are annoying and complaisant," to which an adamant Camille replies that he's "not sensitive enough." By comparison, "Goodbye First Love" is just sensitive enough.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already acclaimed by European critics and released in France, "Goodbye First Love" also played to strong reactions at Toronto and New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects has picked up it up for a U.S. release, and it's a delicate enough movie to generate decent numbers in limited release, although it should generate its biggest numbers on VOD.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2011 Locarno International Film Festival.