Many love stories require suspension of disbelief in order for viewers to fall under their spell. We tolerate – and occasionally embrace – the clichés to have a good cry. Audiences have grown so accustomed to convention in this genre that when a movie like Goodbye First Love comes along, the effect might initially be disorienting. I kept searching for any hint of contrivance in this brutally honest chronicle of a decade in the lives of a young Parisian couple, but I came up empty-handed. The film, which opens Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is a lived-in romance that's acutely aware of how past choices invade, and sometimes threaten to take over, our present.
And it's in the past where writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (Father of My Children) first checks in on her young lovers. The year is 1999, and high school sweethearts Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) can't keep their hands off each other. A fleeting shot of the picture-perfect couple strolling quietly in the snow, however, can't begin to mask a growing rift between the attractive lovebirds. “He's the one,” she declares to her mother (a wonderful Valérie Bonneton), all the while having internal doubts about the strength of her relationship. It seems that Sullivan, whose family appears to be Hispanic, hungers to return to South America for an extended road trip across the continent. Camille is outraged that he would put this character-building journey above her, and Sullivan reacts by withdrawing, both physically and emotionally. They reconcile and have spectacular make-up sex. Rinse. Repeat.
It's a tug-of-war that Hansen-Løve handles with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. (Imagine if Sofia Coppola had directed last year's Anne Hathaway tearjerker One Day, and you'll begin to get the picture.) Once Sullivan goes off on his globe-trotting odyssey, the filmmaker forces us to feel the void that his absence leaves on Camille by placing us squarely in her doom-laden state of mind. We only hear from Sullivan through the many letters he sends to Camille, which Urzendowsky recites in voiceover narration set to sequences showing Camille's day-to-day routine. She traces Sullivan's trek down South America's western coast by sticking colored pins on a wall map. It's all too much for this clingy drama queen to take, and she reacts accordingly. Créton refuses to tone down Camille's possessive and self-destructive nature, and as a result we feel for her at the same time we want to slap her and tell her to move on, already.
As Goodbye First Love continues to jump forward through time, Hansen-Løve opts to stay with Camille as she becomes an exceptional architecture student. Rather than giving her an arbitrary vocation to sublimate her heartache, the movie dives headfirst into the details of her coursework. In a stimulating sequence, a professor compares the tiny dorm rooms Camille has designed for a class project to a monastery, accurately putting his finger on her isolation. She fares much better with Lorenz (Hugo Weaving lookalike Magne Håvard Brekke), a teacher who deeply understands where she's coming from, and who might just put an end to the emptiness she still carries with her.
Will she embark on an affair with the older man that will erase once and for all the pangs of her faded love? I kept waiting for Hansen-Løve to insert Sullivan back into the story, but there's nothing fabricated about the way events unfold in her tough-minded ode to young love's messy entanglements. Those roiling feelings of Camille and Sullivan's amour fou never completely disappear as they venture into adulthood, Hansen-Løve seems to say. They mutate into even more complicated emotions. Life goes on, one exquisite heartbreak at a time.