Midway through the lovely Goodbye First Love, protagonist Camille says something surprising: I’m not a nostalgic person, she tells her architecture professor, as they’re driving around following a date at the Louvre. It’s a surprising thing for Camille to say because she’s spent the last three years pining for her teenage boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky)—they parted badly, her diary records her ongoing disengagement from her life at school and work, and it’s strongly implied that she hasn’t been with anyone since.
Camille is played by Lola Creton, who turns 18 this December: at the presser, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve said that she had always imagined Camille played by someone who was the right age for her when the story begins, in 1999, when Camille is 15 (Sullivan seems slightly older; when Urzendowsky reappears, he looks the same as well). The film moves fleetly from the turn of ’99 into 2000, up through Camille’s coupling over the course of 2003, and Sullivan’s reappearance at the start of her career in 2007 and a couple seasons thereafter—her life passes in a blur, the separation of her parents happens within an ellipsis, the film only ever immersing in her romantic life, and particularly her love of Sullivan. And throughout, Creton looks much the same, with occasional variation in haircut—it’s eventually hard to buy her as an architect, but the casting gambit works at selling one of the film’s major themes: the way adolescence can seem to be the most really, vividly lived part of one’s life, even well into one’s twenties.
The film opens, in late winter of 1999, with Sulllivan biking around Paris, looking to buy condoms; when he presses Camille’s buzzer, we see he’s carrying a rose, and when he gets upstairs, she’s already naked under the covers, which he teasingly rips off. She’s naively eager to give herself to him, he’s caught between affection and an immature teasing opportunism—most of their relationship will play out that way, her on the back of his bike, or after school (Creton has a great face for gazing off into the middle distance while life is going on around her) or at Camille’s country house over a summer trip they spend their together: their big argument is that he’s planning a ten-month trip to South America with a couple of buds, dropping out of school and selling off a postcard-sized Impressionist painting—an inheritance—to raise funds, and to show off his insistent, shortsighted desire to remain unattached.
If the sophistication of these French teenagers seems a bit much, please do keep in mind that when Mia Hansen-Løve was 17, she was acting in her future husband’s film Late August, Early September. (That Camille’s second, happier relationship is with an older creative type with a mature outlook on his own complicated romantic past seems also significant.) Like the second half of Hansen-Løve’s previous film, The Father of My Children, this is in some ways a movie about a teenage girl who decides she wants to be in the world: she comes out of her cocoon of memories—becomes ready to forsake nostalgia, and swim with the current—on a school trip to the Bauhaus, the Louisiana, and other architectural landmarks. When she and Sullivan begin to see each other again, a few years after, it’s striking how they revert to their old roles even as they’re reversed, with her now managing construction projects and admiring difficult films, and him a handyman in Marsielle (he confesses he finds Paris stifling), needier now and prone to making even more callous confessions of the hurt he feels capable of doing her. (Hansen-Løve’s writing is especially sharp in Sullivan’s letters, from South America and later—she nails the aggrieved, apologetic preening of the young man loved when it’s inconvenient for him.) For a film about change, one of the biggest undergone in Goodbye First Love is the meaning of the title, which begins connoting bittersweet youthful reverie and ends as a hopeful promise of something newer, better.