Sunday, May 13, 2012

Goodbye First Love

The End of Romance

There's a cheeky scene towards the end of Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love where once lovers Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) emerge from a cinema. They've just seen a French film, and Sullivan isn't happy. It's talky, over-serious and 'too French', he complains. Camille, on the other hand, loved it, although is unable to convince Sullivan of its supposed virtues. It's hard to know whether how ironic the director is being with this scene - obviously a little bit ironic, but it's an odd fit in a film that is otherwise presented without a hint of irony. Goodbye First Love is indeed over-serious and 'talky' in the way only Gallic films can be, and I can imagine many couples will emerge having a similarly divisive discussion about Goodbye First Love itself.

Let's jump back to act one. A synopsis: Camille and Sullivan are teens, and wildly in love. Sullivan, however, has itchy feet and is eager to travel to South America with friends. Camille is as heartbroken as you'd expect from an emotionally fragile fifteen year-old drama queen. The two enjoy their last weeks and months together, their first-love only interrupted by passionate arguments where Camille urges Sullivan to stick around in France. Despite Camille's pleading, Sullivan departs. Camille lives solely for his letters, and she tracks his travel progress with tacks on a map. But after a while, the letters stop. A distraught Camille reacts the only way an obsessive teen would and attempts suicide.

The film time-jumps, and we follow a (mostly) recovered Camille at various junctures over the next decade. She goes to college to study architecture. She rejects the casual sexual encounters of the college set, but ultimately falls for her much older professor Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke). A relationship forms, and things are looking up. But a chance encounter with Sullivan's mother on the tram leads to a (Camille initiated) reunion. Is she really over her first love? (Answer: not really).

There's not a whole lot more than that to Goodbye First Love, by design. Hansen-Løve directs without pretension or over-stylisation. For the most part, it's an honest-to-goodness tale of a teenage romance that won't quite fade away. There's the odd burst of none-too-subtle symbolism - Sullivan's straw hat lingers like a literal weight on Camille's heart - but there's not many surprises. It's simply the eight-year duration of first love, warts and all.  

There's nothing wrong with that, per say, but Goodbye First Love does suffer from a lack of depth. At its worst, it's the cinematic equivalent of an emo song. There's only the most basic of insight to be gained, and the emotional peaks and troughs are ever familiar. Camille is a frustratingly over-sensitive and over-emotive protagonist - so wrapped up is she in her broken heart that it becomes repetitive and slightly exhausting. It's no fault of Créton, who puts in a fairly honest and effective performance. But teenage melancholy does not always make for the most original or engaging storytelling, and there's only so much moping one can suffer from an emotionally stunted protagonist. That Sullivan is a cocky, inconsistent and clearly unreliable boyfriend is immediately obvious to the viewer but infuriatingly incomprehensible for Camille.

If you think the aftermath of a teenage break-up warrants eight years of hard-earned emotional recovery, then you may find some resonance here. For others, it'll be mountains out of mole-hills. You might even feel a bit sorry for poor old Lorenz: a nice guy who becomes an unknowing third-party in Camille's continued pining for her lost love. The conclusion to this story is well-handled, but ultimately only really serves to remind us how slight the whole affair was.

But at least the pop music soundtrack is pleasant!

Goodbye First Love's ambitions are modest, then, and it certainly is a modest success. But it, like the anonymous film Sullivan deplores, is overwrought and very, very French. Devoid of humour but heavy in melancholia, it's a film that's watchable but not overly lovable. As a scrapbook account of a decade of young love & loss, it does its job with focus and efficiency. But while Camille cannot possibly forget Sullivan, the viewer will be hard-pressed to understand why. It's easy to say goodbye to these particular lovebirds.

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