Lola Creton and Sebastian Urzendowsky star in "Goodbye First Love." (Carole Bethue, Sundance…)
Only 31 with but three films to her credit, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has established herself as a creative force. She's done this with quiet films, dramas that demonstrate a gift for empathy and intimacy, for creating emotional states so authentic we feel they're taking place in front of us.
As her latest work, the beautifully honest and psychologically astute"Goodbye First Love"demonstrates, Hansen-Løve has a natural sensitivity to her characters in general and to the women who are often her focus in particular. Nothing is rushed, everything is given its appropriate time and place. When we watch Hansen-Løve's films, we're not only experiencing a life unfolding before us, we're also realizing what a great privilege it is to be able to do that.
Like her last work, the very fine "Father of My Children," "Goodbye First Love" has the knack of continuing its story past where a more ordinary film might end, gaining a creative second wind, so to speak, that proves to be even more powerful and unexpected than what has come before.
"Goodbye" starts out, as the title indicates, as the recounting of a youthful love, but it doesn't stop there. It follows the emotional arc of protagonist Camille over the next eight years. Her journey is the film's journey, and the men in it signify only because of the personal capital she invests in them.
When we meet Camille (a strikingly persuasive Lola Créton), it is 1999 and she is a 15-year-old Parisian passionately involved with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a boy a few years older than she is. Passionate, as it turns out, is almost a mild word for the extent of Camille's feelings. Though she has moments of moodiness and irritability, Camille is totally committed to Sullivan. When she says "love is all I care about, all I live for," Hansen-Løve lets us know that even accounting for teenage melodramatics, Camille means this to the core of her being.
Sullivan clearly loves her, too, but not with the same intensity and focus. He feels the need to widen the range of his experiences by dropping out of school and going off with some pals on a long road trip to South America. "I don't want to be dependent on you," he tells her, adding later, "you have to live your own life as well." The extent of Camille's passion almost unnerves him — he can't imagine that kind of romantic focus, and he is not always sympathetic to how hard this separation is going to be for her.
For a while after Sullivan leaves, the relationship continues via frequent letters. Camille follows his progress with pins on a wall map of South America, a situation that is not fated to last, though that doesn't make its ending any less of a jolt.
When the film moves forward four years to 2003, Camille appears considerably changed. Her long hair is cut gamin short, and she is seriously involved in the study of architecture, though signs of her loneliness are not hard to come by. In one deft scene, one of her professors chides her for the way she has designed a potential family housing development by gently telling her "what you've imagined is a monastery."
As more time passes, Camille finds herself attracted to and then in a tentative relationship with another of her professors, the handsome, blond Norwegian transplant Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke), who takes her seriously in a way Sullivan never did. This different, more adult kind of love would likely be the spot where other films would fade out into the final credits, but it's where "Goodbye First Love" gets increasingly interesting.
A chance encounter suddenly puts Sullivan back in Camille's life after eight years, opening up a whole range of emotional possibilities. It's a given that neither is the same person they were in the past, but does that matter, and if it does, in what ways? How Camille reacts to Sullivan's emotional pull, and what that reaction does to her life, is worked out in a manner that is true both to the characters and to the director's fluid and engaging style.
"Life is never what we expect," one character says, and that is true as well for this singular film.