Tuesday 1 May 2012
Teenage dream: "Goodbye First Love"
The joy of Mia Hansen-Løve's 2009 breakthrough feature Father of My Children resided in the discovery of a young writer-director already capable of seeing her story from multiple angles, and able to grant everyone within it - whether a suicidal father, or his suddenly bereft children - their reasons. Even so, it remains something of a surprise that Hansen-Løve's latest Goodbye First Love, a semi-autobiographical account of a summer romance and its consequences, should initially proceed from a masculine, rather than feminine, perspective: we're looking at 15-year-old self-diagnosed melancholic Camille (Lola Créton) through the eyes of her tousle-haired beau Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a bounding, boyish chancer forever dashing off to jump on a scooter or into a lake.
In the early stages of the film, set in 1999, Camille's ever-changing moods, her perma-sulks, are held up as something to be amused by; this, we sense, is Hansen-Løve's way of getting some distance on her adolescent self, and gently, kindly, observing what a silly and self-serious girl she may have been once upon a time. When Sullivan vanishes to South America, plunging into the next, more grandiose stage of what he calls his "adventures" (though tellingly subtitled as "flings"), it's his voice - in the form of his letters home to Camille - that we hear on the soundtrack, even as the camera clings to Créton's intelligent, changeable features as Camille sits passively and waits for her lover to return. The filmmaker recognises we have first to find out about him - his deeds, his words - in order to know what makes her (and her heart) tick so.
Like Father of My Children, Goodbye First Love is predicated on a sudden narrative rupture, the better to examine the emotional fallout left in its wake. Camille's crisis occurs when the letters home stop, a formative moment as devastating, in its own way, as the producer's suicide in the earlier film - as, for the very first time, our heroine finds herself forced to travel her own way, and alone. The suicide motif recurs here, though Hansen-Løve, with her extraordinary lightness of touch, deals with Camille's attempt on her own life in a matter of three shots, occasioning no histrionics. Camille swallows a handful of pills, then turns away from the camera; we cut to her mother and father turning up at a clinic, with a change of clothes; and the film then leaps to 2002, where it rejoins its heroine in her new (and newly independent) life, with a change of haircut that is in itself enough to signify a fresh start.
You live, you learn, you move on: both thematically and emotionally, Hansen-Løve's cinema would appear rooted in the business of experience. The film's middle act, whether intentionally or not, reclaims for a kind of truth that tired old Hollywood saw that sees (usually male) architects recast as models of sensitivity (cf. Just Like Heaven, The Lake House, It's Complicated, etc.). Its heroine, now an architecture student trying to build a future for herself, sets about the grunt work of visiting Berlin and the Bauhaus sites and Louisiana in Denmark and having to make maquettes; in a rare movie development, a career in architecture becomes an active choice, rather than the stand-by of a thousand lazy romcom screenwriters.
If there's been a progression in Hansen-Løve's filmmaking, it's that the new film features not one rupture, but two. Camille's path having been established, we flash ahead again to 2007, by which point she's taken up with her fortysomething professor (Magne Håvard Brekke, the enfant terrible director in Father of My Children). Our alarm bells should have rung earlier on, when the teacher confesses to his adoring student that he's in the middle of a divorce, yet this development is handled without any judgmentalism. (Some have seen this relationship as a reflection of the thirtysomething filmmaker's real-life pairing with the fiftysomething Olivier Assayas.)
Hansen-Løve's quietness of means is such that even when Sullivan finally reenters Camille's life (as we were certain he must), he does so by simply pulling up alongside her in the street on his bike. Sometimes life (and love) is like that, we realise; we expect violins and fireworks, and what actually comes along is a scruffy get on two ill-oiled wheels. That Camille should scarcely recognise her erstwhile lover comes as little surprise, seeing as the difference between them has become so pronounced: 1999's flibbertigibbet has grown into today's young woman, dressed as such, with a vocation to match. Sullivan, on the other hand, is operating on somebody else's time, showing up late to the appointments they now make, prone to the sulks and tantrums he once despaired of in his paramour, both looking and acting like the big kid he always was.
People outgrow one another: this surely happens, too, and more often than the movies allow us to think. If I found Goodbye First Love a little less bouleversant than its predecessor, it's partly because Father of My Children's movie-love spoke more resonantly to me, where the new film's puppy-love will play almost like science fiction to those of us who spent their adolescence in a darkened room, sobbing. I think it's certainly a slighter film, and one prone to the occasional misstep: the final shot, as breezy and sunny as much of the rest, verges on the twee. Mostly, though, Hansen-Løve pays this amour de jeunesse the highest possible compliment, regarding it as something idyllic, deeply felt and meaningful - even as she's been blessed with the worldly wisdom to know you should never really go back.
Goodbye First Love opens in selected cinemas from Friday.