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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Goodbye First Love

Note: This review was originally published as a part of our TIFF 2011 coverage. I’m re-running to now in conjunction with the film’s opening this weekend. You should go see it.

With her latest film, Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve handles her subject matter of adolescent love in a way that’s remarkably free of pretense and condescension, even as her youthful characters occasionally make choices that make you want to throttle them. The story is pretty simple: 15-year-old Camille (Lola Créton) and 18-year-old Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) are in love. Madly, desperately, in love, with an exuberance declared in the italics with which adolescents abundantly litter their emotional lives.

But Sullivan is departing for a 10-month expedition with friends to South America, leaving Camille to wonder helplessly, hopelessly, how he can say he loves her more than he can bear, and yet still bear to be parted from her. He is by turns sympathetic to her sorrow, and angry at her for making him feel guilty for leaving. And so it goes, with first loves and second loves and even third and fourth and fifth loves. The first real love, though, the first real goodbye, cuts deeper, stays with us longer, and even, if we let it, defines the pattern of our future loves and losses.

Hansen-Løve captures ever nuance, every aspect of Camille’s agony as if she’s studying some remnant from her own past under the microscope of a camera lens (the story, seeking to dissect and understand the way a heart loves and won’t let go.

You remember, surely, what it was like to be in love for the first time: First kiss. First sex. The first time you felt that you truly could not live without someone who wasn’t one of your parents. The desperate, clingy partings and the equally desperate, clingy reunions. The agony of waiting for the phone to ring, to hear that voice that’s become your everything on the other end of the line. The emptiness, the bleakness of your life and the enormity of your endless, barren future, stretching out before you into infinity, once it’s over. And the absolute certainty that no one, ever — save perhaps Romeo and Juliet, had they been real — has ever felt the way that you do.

In a 2010 Filmmaker Magazine interview for Father of My Children, Hansen-Løve said, “The more precise you are, the more universal you can be. When films are about a general thing, to me they will never say something true.”

In introducing Goodbye First Love at the film’s public screening at TIFF, she said something very similar. And it’s this idea of preciseness, a devotion to creating and exploring very specific characters through whom she can examine bigger ideas — the commitment to art that drives the artist, the soul-deep commitment to love that drives the heart — that seems to compel Hansen-Løve as a director.

On the other hand, she does not pander to an audience that lacks the patience to allow a story to unravel of its own accord; Camille’s growth and progression through the murky darkness of the soul into which she descends after Sullivan leaves unfolds with an agonizing, deliberate pace that evokes for the audience the full weight of the time it takes her to begin to heal.

In a Hollywood film about adolescent love, Camille would have gotten depressed, been allowed to mope about for about two minutes worth of montage set to some mooning pop ballad, then been promptly rescued by a pack of girlfriends descending upon her with gallons of chocolate ice cream, followed by a nice, soul-searching shopping spree at the mall, wherein her gaze would fall upon an even better boy than the one she just lost, and their eyes would meet across a crowded food court, and all would be well.

But not for Hansen-Løve the trite or the mundane. Camille immerses herself in her grief completely, isolates herself emotionally from everyone around her, goes through the barest motions of life while not really living at all — not for days or weeks, but for years. Then she emerges back into life slowly, one slow hand reaching up from the depths of despair at a time, with all the caution of a person who’s been locked in a dark room for years emerging, painfully, half-blinded, back out into daylight.

Hansen-Løve’s films are meticulously, precisely paced; there are no broad strokes or caricature to be found in her work, only careful studies of these particular characters and their particular lives. Where Sarah Polley — another smart female director busy making films from a distinctly feminine perspective — seems most interested in exploring the edges of relationships, Hansen-Løve focuses more on understanding what lies within them. It’s material that she mines deeplyl, with the innate sense of honesty that feels derived and nurtured, at least in part, by her own life experiences with the subjects she chooses to explore. And as with her previous work, Goodbye First Love is a beautifully wrought, delicately and precisely structured piece of storytelling that pierces the universal heart.

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