Here’s a scene to make young women feel ashamed of the crushing power of their romantic needs. In “Goodbye, First Love” (“Un Amour de jeunesse”), the third part of Mia Hansen-Løve’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, 17-ish Parisian Camille (Lola Créton) travels to her family’s house in the Ardèche with her boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urdanowky), for a rural idyll. One morning he cycles off to buy groceries and, with typical fecklessness, goes for a swim while she waits for his return. After they fight, he makes breakfast to placate her and calls her to the dining room but seats them at opposite ends of the long table. They eat in silence and he assiduously gets up to bring her a condiment. But she cannot stand the distance between them and humiliates herself by crawling, cat-like, along a bench so that she can nuzzle him.
In a British television drama in 1976, Kate Nelligan was memorable as that another feline “Camille” – Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas, fils’ “The Lady of the Camellias” – who literally hisses and claws erotically at her Armand. She dies, of course, for asserting her sexual dominance, whereas Créton’s Camille nearly dies for her self-mythifying heartbreak. You wonder why she has become the supplicant in the relationship with the childlike Sullivan – it could be that he holds his unavailability over her like a sword.
Soon, ignoring her protests, he disappears to Peru on a 10-month jaunt with his friends. At first he writes passionately to Camille, who dutifully tracks his progress with colored pins on a wall map of South America. But his letters dwindle and when he does write it’s to admit that he’s thinking of Camille while kissing others. Abruptly, Hansen-Løve cuts to Camille taking some pills before lying down on her bed, and then to her parents and brother arriving at the sanatorium where she is recuperating after her suicide attempt.
Camille could have stepped out of one of Eric Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” or “Tales of the Four Seasons.” Solemn and self-dramatizing (and radiantly pretty), she is a woman in an appalling quandary, one who cannot find equanimity while dogged by a yearning that refuses to be extinguished. Only by repeating the relationship with Sebastian years later, and by re-experiencing the inevitable disappointment it will bring, can she get him out of her system. This causes her to cheat on the older man she lives with — even Sebastian remonstrates about her loss of purity and willingness to be unfaithful. “That’s my problem,” she says, having admitted in the same toneless way, “I’ve got you inside of me like a disease."
Hansen-Løve’s two previous films also deal with grief. “Tout est pardonné” (2007) explored the aftermath of a couple’s split caused by the man’s addictions. “The Father of My Children” (2009, “Le Père des mes enfants”), inspired by the death of her mentor the producer Humbert Balsan, showed a young family coming to terms with the suicide of the husband and father, like Balsan a highly creative maverick producer.
As did the latter, “Goodbye, First Love,” which spans eight years as Camille grows from 15 to 23, traverses the passing of time, bringing gradual change to the protagonist, with patience and subtlety. After leaving the sanatorium, Camille moves through various jobs – convention hostess, nightclub worker – before finding her vocation as an architect student who on a field trip to Denmark falls quietly in love with her wise, mature professor Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke). They become a couple, she joins his firm, and she grows in assurance. (He was presumably inspired by the director Olivier Assayas, Hansen-Løve’s older husband.) But then Lola chances on Sullivan’s mother on the Metro and she lures him back into her life…
Whereas there was an aura of fable about Rohmer’s late contes, Hansen-Løve’s movies, filmed in the basic French realist style (she allows herself a single iris shot), are less amused and more realistic in the way they confront the mess and misery of life and present redemption as an attritional working-out of emotions. Blessed by a mesmerizingly absorbed turn by Créton, “Goodbye, First Love” offers fresh evidence that she is one of French’s cinema’s most compelling storytellers.
Below: trailer for "Goodbye, First Love"