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NYFF ’11 Review: Bonjour Tristesse: “Goodbye First Love”

“Goodbye First Love” reveals the constrained life of a shy girl to actually be a courageous, elemental narrative.

"Goodbye First Love"

Fifteen-year-old Camille (Lola Creton) is in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a careless boy poorer and older than she is. As the clumsily translated title Goodbye First Love implies, like most initial forays into romance, things will not end well. Director Mia Hansen-Løve, lauded for her naturalistic family dramas, changes her style with her third feature film, adopting an impressionistic, subjective viewpoint to chart the trajectory of Camille, her introverted protagonist.

With the title etched in a jazzy 70’s-influenced font and an upbeat folk music soundtrack brightening an otherwise somber storyline (the catchy “The Water” by young British musicians Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling is worth staying through the end credits for), Goodbye First Love is cocooned in a fashionable aesthetic, but moves at a moody, novelistic pace. Opening in 1999, the film skips through 8 years in starts and jumps, as Camille passes various milestones of maturity.

Father of My Children, Hansen-Løve’s last film, about an independent film production company facing bankruptcy, acknowledged the crushing reality of debt and the toll it exacts on intimate relationships. Goodbye First Love retreats into the dreamy world of privileged adolescence where money remains an abstract issue; Camille’s parents own a picturesque country house and a Parisian apartment, and she has the luxury of devoting herself to romantic obsession, eventually pursuing a career not as a necessity but as a distraction from heartbreak.

Hansen-Løve typically minimizes stylistic flourishes, but in an early scene, she uses an iris out on a straw hat Sullivan buys in the city followed by an iris in on Camille wearing the same hat in the country, adding a flicker of Truffaut-influenced playfulness. She uses red as a visual alarm bell to  emphasize turning points in Camille’s life; when Camille makes a morally questionable decision, she carries a red bag, and a red bathing suit marks an instance of sudden clarity.

Camille wears her straw hat in a pastoral idyll that pushes dreamy romanticism to the extreme. The young lovers look ridiculously poetic, Sullivan like a Botticelli youth, Camille like a Dante Gabriel Rossetti muse, and engage in suitably picturesque activities, riding a white horse through an amber field, and embracing in a sun-dappled glen. That Camille never visibly ages past this points adds a touch of magical realism to the film, as though the importance of this weekend with Sullivan has stunted her physically as well as emotionally.

Although a scattering of text messages function as plot points, dramatic confessions are revealed only through letters sent by Sullivan to Camille. This epistolary element gives the film a 19th century feeling, as does Camille’s cloistered, quasi-Victorian lifestyle. Like a Bronte heroine, she’s consumed by feverish emotions, has no social life, and spends her time reading and writing in her diary. Even a housing model she makes for architecture school looks, as a professor tells her, like a monastery.

Following the romantic exploits of an intellectual, bourgeois young girl, Goodbye First Love may intentionally recall works of Eric Rohmer, but it lacks his use of persistent conversational patter. But whereas even one of Rohmer’s most reserved characters, Delphine in Le Rayon Vert, can expound endlessly on topics as mundane as vegetarianism, Camille is habitually silent.

I only fully understood the reticent Camille during the press conference, when 18-year-old Creton, although dressed head to toe in bright red, was so shy that she could barely answer one audience question. It was suddenly obvious some of Creton’s personal qualities had spilled over into Camille, who often appears aloof, cold, and purposefully alone. If Camille is actually paralyzed with shyness, her quiet life and the importance she places on her few personal connections make sense, as does her choice of a protective father figure as a partner. Creton may be familiar to Catherine Breillat fans as the astonishing actress from Bluebeard (2009), and Goodbye First Love proves that she is one of the best young French actresses working today.

While this is only Mia Hansen-Løve’s third feature film, Goodbye First Love still indicates a point of departure for her, a new style of symbolic, nostalgic storytelling. Here she’s taken a large step toward combining her most personal experiences with ambitious cinematic goals, sweeping through summer and winter, city and country, youth and age. With Goodbye First Love, she reveals the constrained life of a shy girl to actually be a courageous, elemental narrative.

Anna Bak-Kvapil is a film critic, filmmaker and actor. She contributes to the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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