Conversations about film
July 7, 2020
Goodbye First Love
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011
Jim Wilson: So, I’m kicking off my film conversation blog by discussing with my friend Michael Clawson Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2011 love story Goodbye First Love. It tells the story of Camille (Lola Créton), a 15-year-old girl in Paris, who is deeply in love with the slightly older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Camille describes herself from the beginning as a “melancholic”, and it’s clear that she seems as motivated to wallow in the dark waters of her own fears as much as she’s inclined to bask in the sunshine of her affections for Sullivan. Sullivan’s planned trip to South America with friends is fueling Camille’s despondent tone, but there also seems to be something deep and immovable about her forlorn behavior. When Sullivan leaves, Camille falls into a deep malaise, and Hansen-Løve’s direction mimics the dull routines of her life, displaying a repeating loop of daily activities, the focal point of which is a bank of mailboxes in her family’s apartment building, where Camille returns again and again, anticipating another letter from far-away Sullivan.
Michael, I know you’re a big fan of Hansen-Løve and have seen more of her titles than I have, though I think we share a mutual appreciation for her 2016 film with Isabelle Huppert called Things to Come. I love her attention to apparently random details, by which she makes clear the emphasis she places on the intermediate moments of everyday life. I was particularly taken, at the very beginning of the film, with the great care she gives to filming Sullivan as he takes off his gloves, gathers some coins and purchases a pack of cigarettes from a cute little wall-mounted vending machine, but then the flower he buys next from a street vendor is only hinted at. What elements of Hansen-Løve’s style stand out for you in this film?
Michael Clawson: It’s true, I have a real fondness for Hansen-Løve, and I think Goodbye First Love is my favorite of hers. It’s been several years since I first saw the film, and one element that had escaped my memory is the brisk, elliptical editing scheme, and how Hansen-Løve uses it to repeatedly skirt melodrama and instead, as you say, emphasize the everyday. In that same vein, the structure is such that key moments in Camille and Sullivan’s relationship occur off-screen: we meet Camille and Sullivan after she’s already fallen completely head over heels for Sullivan, and also after he’s already decided to leave her for South America. Considering how utterly devastated Camille is about Sullivan’s leaving, we can only imagine how upset she was when he actually broke the news to her. I like how Hansen-Løve is more interested in the suggestiveness of “in-between” moments, rather than the most dramatic ones. Even what we do see of Camille, as overwhelmed by heartbreak as she is, is played with some understatement, rather than as a series of really emotional highs and lows.
You also mention Hansen-Løve’s attention to detail. I was most struck by that aspect of her style when Camille and Sullivan take a trip to her family villa in the countryside, just before Sullivan leaves. I love how gracefully Hansen-Løve evokes the feel of the surrounding area and the landscape. The warmth of the sunshine, the wind in the trees – all the sensory details that Camille will forever associate with this indelible relationship come through Hansen-Løve’s elegant compositions.
How did the movie play for you this time around? What struck you as interesting, or affecting?
Jim Wilson: Oh, I really loved it this time around. This was one of those films I watched early on in my submergence into French cinema, when I still didn’t have the proper understanding, or really contextualization, to fully appreciate it. Watching it now, it’s pure poetry.
I love your point about everything that happens before the story even begins, and what kind of emotional upheaval has already happened. That’s great story-telling, what’s left to your, the viewer’s, imagination.
Like I said, I really keyed into Camille’s naturally melancholic nature, just as she knows it to be, and how that naturally frames all of her experiences in life. I can relate to Camille, because I’ve always been like that myself, always looking for some dark cloud to go cower under. The really moving import of this movie is how she comes to live with those parts of herself that are always at war, at least for the time being.
Camille becomes an architect over the, what is it, seven, eight-year course of the story? Or an architectural student, anyway. In a scene from one of her architecture classes, a fellow student reads a quote about the need for houses, and some obscure dilemma between art and architecture. “People seek to maintain their comfort,” she says, “They hate whatever wrenches them from their certitudes, whatever bothers them. This is why they love their houses, and hate art.” I don’t think this is meant as an indictment of Camille as a philistine, but it does a beautiful job of anchoring Camille in a powerful personal connection with her chosen profession. Architecture is a sheltering permanence that, when done well, provides comfort. But it may also filter out difference, and instances of spontaneity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love how Camille doesn’t have to become some revised, updated version of herself to move forward. She doesn’t really change at all. She’s just more capable of managing the emotional landscape that’s always challenged her. I think of Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color, honestly, an intensely intimate romantic who, like Camille, kind of learns how to outgrow her own obsession, though it will always be there. There will never be a time in Camille’s life when the appearance of Sullivan won’t stir up deep emotions.
Talk on that a little, and then tell me what you think is going on with Camille and Lorenz, her Norwegian teacher/lover, a relationship that develops as Camille pursues her career as an architect. I think she respects and admires him, but not sure if she really loves him, at least not in the way she loves Sullivan. Is that the point, to illustrate how Camille compartmentalizes love, or powerful emotions, or have I taken the wrong fork?
Michael Clawson: Camille becomes more securely herself – that’s a great way to put what happens. She doesn’t try to put the past behind her or reinvent herself to overcome the heartache, but instead comes to accept the permanence of the memories she has with Sullivan, and the longing that might always be stirred up when she’s reminded of him. It’s not a movie about falling in love or being in love, but the lasting impression that really falling for someone for the first time leaves on us. I like the comparison between Adele and Camille, and their shared romanticism. In the scene just before the one you described, Camille’s professor looks over the architectural model she’s built, a mock college campus, and knocks it for being impractical. The same idealism that makes her think students wouldn’t mind an absurdly long walk between their dorm and their cafeteria is the same idealism that probably had her thinking she and Sullivan would be together forever. It’s adolescent naivete, but Hansen-Løve in no way holds it against her.
I agree that Camille isn’t deeply taken with Lorenz. I get the sense that similar to how concentrating on architecture helps to divert her attention away from her melancholia, a relationship with Lorenz feels like a step forward away from the relationship she still misses. Her affection for him is genuine – he’s much more than just a distraction – but the relationship is important mostly insofar as she’s learning that she could be happy with someone else. Lorenz may or not be the guy for her. I’m guessing he’s not.
I’m not quite sure how the timeline lines up with actual events, or if it does at all, but in light of the film supposedly being autobiographical, I think Lorenz might be a stand-in for Olivier Assayas, who Hansen-Løve was married to for a period of time. The age gap between Camille and Lorenz certainly fits.
Other thoughts? Other aspects you found appealing, or not so much? Also, your familiarity with French cinema runs deeper than mine. You mentioned Blue is the Warmest Color – any other films or filmmakers that come to mind as relevant points of comparison?
Jim Wilson: I’ll address that last bit first, then move on. To be honest, Michael, a great deal of French cinema reminds me of Goodbye First Love. The better question is what French cinema doesn’t resemble GFL? And I say that with boundless affection for French cinema.
In the end, the film’s motif, the straw hat Sullivan gives to Camille early on, floats down a lovely summer river, a gentle farewell. They’ve tried one last time to recover their affections, but it’s as hopeless as it’s ever been. I see the film like a memoir, probably a thickly-veiled tale of Hansen-Løve herself, and, as you point out, her relationship with Assayas. Camille’s intensely personal excursion is clearly more than a screenwriter’s invention. It feels very real.
My leading questions aside, what makes this a five-star film for you? What do you most love about it?
Michael Clawson: I don’t rate it five stars because I think it’s a “perfect” film by any means, but what I love about it overpowers aspects that aren’t worth as much. It’s partly a confluence of aesthetic choices that I love, from the score, which is nostalgic but not overly sentimental, and which seems to gently push the story forward, to the simple, understated beauty of Hansen-Løve’s eye for things. Beyond those more superficial pleasures, I simply would be hard-pressed to find a coming-of-age film that I think better captures the wistful feelings that follow from your first real break up, and how difficult navigating heartbreak can be when you’re young. And not only that, but Hansen-Løve does it without romanticizing Sullivan and Camille’s relationship, or succumbing to cliches. I think Créton does a phenomenal job of bringing specificity to Camille – every one of her tears feels so real and true – while remaining just indecipherable enough that we have room for speculation as to what she’s feeling, and can fold our own experiences into hers. And the ending, which you already mentioned, I find absolutely exquisite.
Jim Wilson: Yeah, I thought some of the music was really interesting, not stuff that’s trying to evoke a particular emotion or communicate any overall tone, but accompanies Camille and Sullivan, like a companion.
I did want to bring up one other thing about architecture as it fits with Camille. During a scene where Lorenz is lecturing the class, he brings up memory as an important thing that architecture ideally needs to incorporate into a structure. I like to think that really sank in with Camille, and it’s through architecture that she finds a means by which to locate and cope with her memories of Sullivan.
I can’t agree with you more about Lola Créton’s performance; she’s so effortlessly natural. You of course know of her performance in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, and I’ll further point out another role of hers in Claire Denis’s Bastards. It’s a smaller role, but she plays a girl who is deeply traumatized, and she’s so convincing as someone with a lot of buried horrors, without speaking much at all.
Is there anything more you want to add before we wrap up this first Collokino colloquy?
Michael Clawson: I haven’t seen Bastards, but you saying that Créton doesn’t speak much in that role makes me think again of the scene where Camille’s professor critiques her model. I don’t think Camille says even a word in response to him! We just watch her subtly react to what he says – she lightly shrugs, smiles a bit, etc. I love watching all those little gestures.
Thanks for hosting the discussion, Jim! I love this film, and, as always, really enjoyed talking through it with you.
Jim Wilson: My pleasure, Michael. We’ll do it again soon.