By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 17, 2012 at 3:07PM
Television and movies love to indulge us in pre-adulthood nostalgia. Whether the bait is loose (young hooligans causing a ruckus) or more specific and event-oriented (prom, which we've seen less of lately because, well, prom sucks), the powers that be tug at our heartstrings and force us to look back at a time free of major responsibilities and full of fresh experiences. The glazed schmaltz can be off-putting for some, but occasionally sincerity shines through, and we get something that captures the emotions extraordinarily well (for this writer's money, "The Virgin Suicides" and "The Girl" are uneven but nail certain feelings on the head). But if we look back without this fondness, what are these stories? Are they merely happenings that somehow affected the person we become, or are they just the product of naive children that didn't know better? Mia Hansen-Løve's "Goodbye First Love" attempts a critical look at a teenager's first relationship without wooing us first with their blithe beginnings, but has very little to say about the topic.
Sporting a feel similar to partner Olivier Assayas's family drama "Summer Hours" (in fact, it almost seems like 'Goodbye' picks up right where the aforementioned ends), we drop in on the adolescent Parisian lovers Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and Camille (Lola Créton) after copulation. It's not explicitly stated how long the two have actually been courting one another, but the attitude of their relationship (fights at the drop of a hat, comfortable-yet-unhappy) suggest a rather lengthy amount of time. To make things worse, Sullivan is planning an extensive trip to South America with a friend, which translates as "inevitable break-up" to Camille. Despite their adorable penchant for sneaking out of the house to be with one another and an impromptu mini-vacation to the countryside, these problems loom overhead and drain the tender affection out of their remaining time together.
Sullivan finally departs, and both Camille and Hansen-Løve move on without him. We follow the young girl as she dives head-first into architectural studies and brings out some major changes -- she's now sporting a new haircut, a nicotine addiction, and a crush on her seemingly-malnourished professor Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke, aping Jérémie Renier's sickly look from "Lorna's Silence"). The movie jumps through the years smoothly as she makes great strides in school and her subsequent career, but emotionally she's still the same person -- she still drops the most astoundingly faux-deep lines ("Everything before this doesn't matter," which is followed by a gentle criticism by Lorenz) and even continuously diaries about her longing for her teenage cohort. A chance encounter on a bus with one of his relatives connects Camille and Sullivan back together, but is this really what she wants?
Because the filmmaker starts at the tail-end of their relationship, we automatically take a critical stance of their consociation. To some extent, it's nice to have this kind of different perspective on teeny-bopper love, but by discarding the charm of their initial attraction and cheery romance, our only investment in the two whittles down to simple head-shakes and eye-rolls. Their bond together is portrayed in such a negative, matter-of-fact light that it almost feels helmed in a very condescending way. While there's definitely plenty of stories that do fine without emotional commitment from the audience, this kind of plot absolutely necessitates one. The absence of affection makes the characters' actions a tad irritating, and it as a whole lacks any sort of substantial impact thanks to the director's refusal to show the couple at happier times and reluctance to embrace any sort of guileless behavior. You don't have to go Spielberg on us, but there is something undeniably beautiful and rare when love is borne out of innocence. When you eschew that, you're overlooking a huge aspect of being a youth; the perspective is marred by bitterness.
One ingenious move by the director is using the same actors for the lead roles; as the flick's timeline spans at least a decade (give or take), their inability to properly move on is reflected in their immature look no matter how different their clothing or however many cigarettes they smoke. Unfortunately, she ends up abandoning this motif when the maturation point actually happens, instead following Camille's hat as it drifts down a river. It doesn't hold as much weight as Hansen-Løve wants it to, ultimately concluding the film with a whimper.
It's hard to say what this overly-serious investigation of puerile passion is ultimately trying to say. By curbing Sullivan to focus on Camille solo, prying into her reluctance to ultimately move on from him, Hansen-Løve is either making a statement that this boy had a hand in who she eventually became, or in broader terms, is analyzing the way some people refuse to let go of feelings long gone. Maybe it's simply supposed to show the reality of how long it takes to get over a person that was once pined for. Either way you spin it, it's not much to chew on, and its inability to affect makes "Goodbye First Love" even more disappointing. The "Father of my Children" director's reflection on early amour and its long-lasting power is much too distant, taking out the enchantment without analyzing deep enough to make up for it. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the New York Film Festival.