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Exclusive Cahiers du Cinéma Reviews in English: Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘Goodbye First Love’ Confirms the Artistry of a Master Filmmaker

Exclusive Cahiers du Cinéma Reviews in English: Mia Hansen-Løve's 'Goodbye First Love' Confirms the Artistry of a Master Filmmaker

On the occasion of its 700th issue, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma has partnered with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, to present a special two-part CinéSalon film series. Beginning this week, the series features a selection of rarely shown treasures from French film history and continues in June with a showcase of top picks that have been championed in the pages of the magazine. Indiewire pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.

On Tuesday, June 24, FIAF screens former Cahiers contributor Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Goodbye First Love” at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The 7:30 screening will be introduced by Richard Peña, Director Emeritus of the New York Film Festival and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Florence Maillard, a regular contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma since 2010, wrote the review below.

The Time for Feelings

“Goodbye First Love” confirms the originality, depth of observation, and narrative intelligence of Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous two films. One remembers the simultaneously radiant and opaque figure of the producer who commits suicide in “Father of My Children.” Something radiates from the frames, faces, and worlds captured by the director, yet a secret remains: that of alterity.

Once again, this third film deals with mourning (the symbolic mourning for a love affair) and vital force, the taste for art (for beauty), work and transmission, amorous exchanges and the way they transform us.

The titular first love is that between Camille and Sullivan, two teenagers connected by a powerful feeling from the film’s first shots. It is a given that they love each other. The summery and sunny first part of the film is devoted to describing this love, threatened by Sullivan’s departure to another country. When Sullivan does leave Paris for South America, an epistolary relationship begins, then is suddenly interrupted, leaving Camille alone with her love. This is the film’s cold and wintery second part: an apprenticeship of solitude, a long development toward a necessary metamorphosis. At this point, Camille discovers architecture, throws herself body and soul into her studies, and does transform herself, seeming to learn a certain freedom and autonomy—which echo Sullivan’s words justifying his departure.

Camille meets Lorenz, her professor and a well-known architect. Their shared passion draws them closer and they fall in love. Camille is working with Lorenz and apparently fully living this new life when she is reminded of Sullivan by a chance encounter with his mother on a bus (a reminder of the end of Eric Rohmer’s “Winter’s Tale,” recreated in the less sensational and more ambivalent form of an accident that can no longer be identified as expected, and which is in no way an end point).

At Camille’s initiative, the two young people — eight years have passed, but neither love nor youth has vanished — see each other again and eventually, of course, resume the relationship so long interrupted. Camille now has two lovers. Possibly assisted by a stroke of fate that makes her miss a train to Sullivan’s new home in Marseilles, she seems to find a kind of peace in the suspended moments of a new summer spent in familiar places where nothing and yet everything has changed. This sense of peace and accomplishment suggest that she build and move forward, without disowning any of the path she followed to arrive at this balance.

It is important to describe the ultimately simple story of “Goodbye First Love” at such length because the mere stating of the story suggests the extent to which the narrative never relies on an opposition of periods, dramatic turns of events, exacerbated feelings, or emotional imbroglios.

Chronological and patient, it captures events over a duration, records an evolution, a movement that welcomes individuals’ solitude within a network of relationships — everyone exists for him or herself, and builds him or herself individually, like the construction sites Camille visits and soon heads (think of Lorenz or Camille’s parents’ divorces or Sullivan’s new life outside the frame) — as well as fundamental coincidences in which paths intersect, move apart, and intersect again.

The frank, direct, attentive, and well-meaning way in which the characters are observed makes a sharp complexity spring from the narrative flow, which seems to accompany that of the seasons and resonate with vibrations and a variation of luminous intensities. This takes place through a form of moderation, nearly rigor, which is far from facile and can even be puzzling, when the film uses its reflective tonality to substitute a story of age to the promise of the film’s French title [“Un amour de jeunesse: A Love of Youth”] — which could be the title of a pop song exalting the universal frozen in an ideal eternity or nostalgia. 

The extremely beautiful aspect of “Goodbye First Love,” which could already be seen in Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous films, is that these characters do not only learn a kind of freedom, but that to the viewer they remain partially opaque and autonomous within the fiction itself. It isn’t quite that they drive the narrative: they get ahead of it, foil it, and are always already elsewhere.

In a way, they are superior or foreign to the narrative, they are not affected by its mechanisms. In a rather extraordinary scene, we think we can determine that Camille and Lorenz are already a couple when we see them share what we come to understand is their first kiss: the viewer was ahead, or slightly off track. What the characters live and share always belongs to them. What does Sullivan experience in South America? His letters have nothing of the artifice of fiction or a slightly stuffy novelistic quality. They underscore this autonomy, both as windows to an inner life, signs of a stranger located off screen, and as messages solely destined to the character of Camille, a monologue we come upon as if reading over her shoulder.

Sullivan’s letters punctuate an absence. His silence is a complete vanishing. Another truly surprising moment in this relationship to the way the characters are staged comes when Sullivan leaves Camille, after seeing her in Lorenz’s apartment. We accompany Sullivan outside and watch him walk away.

Then another shot shows Lorenz arriving from the opposite direction to join Camille. Can we say that they have crossed paths? This situation, which can only be interpreted as such by the viewer, is simply stated by the film, nothing more. There is no suspense, no useless demonstration — the event is a non-event because Sullivan and Lorenz are absolutely unconscious of it. Here again, the film does not cling to the automatic reflexes of a narrative. And since neither Sullivan nor Lorenz think about the fact that they are crossing paths in the street, nor even about this eventuality, we are led to ask ourselves another question: here, at this very moment, what are they thinking about? And a whole world opens.

The narrative — the images, the editing, the whole of the film — gathers up the form of these relationships, the shape of the individual trajectories, and their inscription in the world. The narrative and the character will not provide the viewer with a bridge of identification and mimetic emotion. On the other hand, so long as the viewer makes himself as available as the film is available to the story it tells, he will grasp the opening of a relationship to the world. In its great sobriety (some will say: too great?), with its calm rhythm and crystalline photography, “Goodbye First Love” is absolutely a director’s film, which offers intelligence and the contemplation of a complex universe which resembles the world. Architecture, whose significant presence in the film is more than anecdotal, is a good parallel to Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema.

Since the characters are possibilities within the film’s possibility, since the buildings visited or conceived by the characters—vacation houses, ruins, constructions sites, models, jewels, crossed, occupied, experienced, imagined, thought — are constructions which define the possibilities of an individual and collective inscription within the environment, the film takes the position of a living relationship to the filmed world, its very own manner, both constructed and relating to the real, of recording a radiance (of light, of a body or a face), a shout, the dominance of a place or landscape, the duration of an instant, the form of an event. This “secret song of the world,” which cinema can reveal through its magic (Eric Rohmer) supports the characters’ song, which it enjoins us to carefully listen to. Like Sullivan, breezing by on his bike, they will only be passing through.

—Florence Maillard

Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 668, June 2011.

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