There's nothing like the intensity of young love, but that descriptor cuts in many ways at once. Feelings so pure and intoxicating can never be repeated, but they cannot be controlled, either, by the wisdom and maturity that enrich and sustain a relationship in the long term. Intensity can curdle just as quickly into jealousy, possessiveness and depression; when a heartsick teenager uses a phrase like "I'll die without him," adults may roll their eyes, but it's just barely a figure of speech.
Goodbye First Love, the subtle and perceptive new film by French writer-director Mia Hansen-Love, tests just such a relationship against the passage of time. What happens to love when two people who fell for each other as impetuous teenagers meet again years later, after their wounds have calloused over and they have a little more experience?
Have they really changed? Or do those old feelings come burbling up to the surface again, despite all rational effort to tamp them down? Hansen-Love offers complicated answers to those questions, and they never seem precooked — she has an intuitive touch that's in keeping with characters who act on impulse.
When we first meet Camille (Lola Creton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) in Paris 1999, they're already headed for a tailspin, but they cling hard to each other as the plane's going down. For 15-year-old Camille, no amount of time with Sullivan is too much, and the only thing worse than not seeing him is all the fighting they do over his callousness or her suffocating affection.
When they take a romantic sojourn to Ardeche, the older Sullivan startles Camille with the news that he and a buddy are planning a 10-month tour of South America. He promises they'll pick right up again when he gets back. A few months after his arrival in Caracas, though, his letters start to taper off.
Cut to 2003, when the film finds Camille still shaken but coming into her own as a promising architecture student. She can't bring herself to follow through on a one-night-stand with a like-aged club kid, but she slips into a relationship with a newly divorced professor, Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke), that's not as predatory as it sounds.
Camille learns to love someone in a different way, and sees the value of stability and adulthood. Then Sullivan turns up in Paris a few years later, seeming completely unchanged, and throws her well-ordered life for a loop.
Much like Hansen-Love's previous effort — the equally fine The Father of My Children -- Goodbye First Love hangs a wealth of small observational moments on a structure so firm that a curtain could drop between acts. The Father of My Children was cleaved almost precisely in half, between the events leading up to a film producer's suicide and the toll it registers on the people who loved him; Goodbye First Love unfolds in thirds, with Camille's time in architecture school serving as a quiet bridge between her tempestuous sessions with Sullivan.
This middle section is key. As Sullivan zips off to South America, Hansen-Love stays close to Camille and watches her struggle to pick up the pieces — a growth process that's exceedingly fragile and prone to regression. Lovely touches abound, like the map of South America Camille posts on her bedroom wall right after Sullivan leaves for his trip. She follows his progress pin by pin as he winds his way west and then south through Chile; the pins end when the letters stop coming, and she eventually just folds it up. Life moves on.
Or does it? Goodbye First Love is about emotions that linger and assert themselves against our better judgment. There are times when the title is more a wish than an action — because just as cocaine addicts are forever chasing that first high, there's always the hunger to recapture a lost feeling again, even for those who have spent years in recovery. Pity those who fall off the wagon. (Recommended)