Hollywood’s romantic cinema is quite rightly derided for its sexlessness and its emotional disingenuousness, mistaking Hallmark truisms and cloying, ham-fisted musical montages for real emotional depth. A stereotypical argument it is perhaps, but one which has been proven time and again by the comparative honesty of European cinema’s approach. Goodbye First Love, a passionate and affecting Franco-German drama, offers uncommonly insightful observations of young adult relationships with everything that this entails.
Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) are young and very much in love. But despite this, their differing expectations are a source of considerable friction; Camille, the younger of the two, favours a dependent, all-encapsulating love, while Sullivan tends towards a more disconnected sense of self-sustainability. When he decides to travel away, Camille feels her life disintegrating, and the two of them, over a sprawling time period, struggle to come to terms with it. As a result, something intended to better their lives in fact makes it much harder, and so, as they say, is true of life.
Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (The Father of My Children) ably explores the emotional ebb and flow of young love, the hormonal highs and lows, the contradictions, and the inevitable shifts in perspective which make everything all the more difficult. In relationship dynamics, life has an inevitable knack of getting in the way; we see this once Sullivan announces that he wants to travel, for every subsequent scene in which they enjoy each other’s company is tainted by this; they are having fun but we know they are both pre-occupied with the undesirable moments awaiting them.
While early on it seems easy to sympathise with Sullivan, who feels suffocated by the fickle and emotionally erratic Camille, a solid job is done of balancing their individual flaws, for instance, Sullivan’s emotional coldness compared to Camille’s overt theatrics. Better still, Hansen-Løve makes it personable and relatable; most all viewers will empathise with that feeling of needing a person like one might need oxygen. But she asks us, how would this change after a wealth of distance?
How love fades – or in fact, doesn’t – is the concerning question of the second act. A eulogy for young love might not evoke particularly invigorating revelations, but it is punchily told, and by keeping Sullivan off-screen for a lengthy amount of time, suspense is built for the inevitably tense third act, when he returns into her life.
In reel three, we see adulthood, and the prospect of reigniting lost love. While the tendency to indulge sentiment must have been tempting, it hews well clear of a sitcom treatment, mature – even depressingly so – at times. That all-consuming love, in both its good and less-savoury forms, is captured with pin-sharp accuracy and honesty. Great physical chemistry between the leads is a big help during the numerous sex scenes, as is a spry soundtrack, which prevents things from becoming too downcast.
We don’t always like what Camille and Sullivan do, but we believe that they would do it for each other. The overall tone is a pragmatic one, upsetting perhaps but realistic, detailing how life can get in the way even when the solution will seem troublingly simple to outsiders. Yet Hansen-Løve still finds room for compelling philosophy, comforting youngsters with the notion that nothing is vain when time is on your side and you are still working out who you are.
At once a paean and a eulogy to that unforgettable first love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest feature is a refreshingly frank look at young adult relationships.
Goodbye First Love is in UK cinemas from today.