Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Mia Hansen-Løve 

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who has loved for the very first time—and especially, lost that first love—will be marked for life. The intensity and purity of the feeling, the all-encompassing preoccupation with the beloved, the almost miraculous unreality of being swept up in a new and irresistible feeling has no match in human experience. As Camille (Lola Créton), the protagonist in Mia Hansen-Løve’s documentary-like film Goodbye First Love, says of her new love when her first love Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) walks back into her life after walking out a decade earlier, “I love him as much as I loved you, but in a different way.” That she can recognize real love that isn’t exactly like her first love is a measure of how far she has grown.

Beginning in 1999 Paris, the film opens, as many modern movies do these days, with a sex scene. I absolutely hate this too-common film opener, yet this sex scene isn’t the act itself or even focused on the act itself. Instead, Sullivan pulls a naked Camille in front of a mirror and says “Look how pretty you are.” This is a very telling moment, suggesting that Sullivan is teaching Camille about more than love and sex. More on that later.

Unfortunately for the besotted Camille, Sullivan isn’t as content being in relationship as she is. He is a young man who wants to find himself before he settles down. He decides to drop out of college and arranges to leave on a 10-month trip traveling around South America. Camille, a high school student who can’t imagine a future, let alone one without Sullivan, helplessly flails at his decision, her recriminations nearly spoiling a quiet idyll in the country the pair takes on the eve of his departure.

After Sullivan leaves, Camille tacks up a map of South America and charts with push pins his travels as announced by the weekly letters she receives from him, cellphones not having entered the marketplace yet. After Sullivan has reached Chile, the letters stop. Eventually, Camille takes down the map and pins. She also tries to commit suicide. While in the hospital, we see a book on her nightstand about the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Camille’s brother makes a snide comment about this “light reading.” Camille says nothing, but she starts on her journey to become an architect. She will eventually fall in love with one of her teachers, Lorenz (Magne Håvard Brekke), move in with him, and start work at his firm.

Goodbye First Love must cover 10 years in under two hours, so the film has an episodic quality to it. Nonetheless, Hansen-Løve, whose own career slightly mirrors Camille’s as first an actress for Olivier Assayas and then his wife, pays attention to details that flesh out her characters. We see Sullivan at home with his parents in the suburbs, his dog and kid brother running through a scene or two just because. Sullivan’s habit of coming to see Camille by climbing through her bedroom window provides a romantic echo to Romeo and Juliet, but as the film progresses, we’ll see that the true reference is to Peter Pan and Wendy.

I have been studying Jung’s concepts of the animus and anima lately, and it seems clear to me that Sullivan is a projection of Camille’s animus, or masculine spirit. Camille, in turn, seems to be a projection of Sullivan’s anima, or feminine aspect. Jung says that we can suffer from an animus or anima possesssion, that is, we do not integrate our gender-opposite characteristics into our own psyche, but rather remain captive to the person who acts as our gender mirror. If we fail to integrate these opposite characteristics, we cannot progress properly in our psychic development.

Camille’s life with Sullivan is one wholly given over to the natural, a Garden of Eden so to speak. We see them meeting to have sex, swimming in a pond, lying in a field. When Sullivan returns to Paris later in the film, we learn that he is making a subsistence living taking pictures for a local paper in Marseilles—not the art photographer he planned to be—and doing carpentry for a two-man business he has formed with a friend. He hates the very urban Paris, preferring the rougher port city in which he has settled. He truly is a nature boy, apparently still stuck in his anima possession as he falls into an affair with Camille and runs out on her again, afraid of her influence over him, telling her before he leaves that he thinks of her constantly and sees her when he is having sex with other women. Fortunately for Camille, she assimilated some positives of her time with Sullivan, who helped her recognize her own attractiveness, something women struggle with when their inner animus voice tells them they do not measure up to an ideal projected by male-dominated societies.

Camille has faced the demise of her animus possession, nearly losing her life in the process and demonstrating how tricky and potentially dangerous a process this psychic integration can be and why many people avoid it. We watch her in her classes create structures—houses are symbols of the Self—and receive critiques on her designs. Interestingly, one critique is that she has spent too much time on the creation of an artificial pond—water is a symbol for the unconscious—and not enough on the needs of the people who will be using the buildings she designs and builds. Her class goes on field trips to the architectural centers of Berlin, Bauhaus, and Copenhagen, grounding her growing identity in the real world and putting some flesh on the film with location shooting. When she meets Lorenz, he asks her why she decided to become an architect. Her answer is that she likes to make sense of her surroundings, that is, she wants to differentiate herself from the undifferentiated morass of nature. Later, Sullivan will exclaim that he never pictured her doing anything with her life, an interesting commentary on what happens to us when we are in thrall to our animus or anima.

That she finds herself drawn to Sullivan again is no surprise, as the pull of our unconscious is very strong, and Camille is a long way from completing her life task. Yet she is not the same person she was at 15. She has embarked on an adult life, and while the lure of a return to the Garden of Eden is very real, she also is able to see Sullivan as a real person, one with whom she has little in common. In a very interesting plot point, Camille stops in front of a sidewalk vendor and contemplates some watercolors for sale. We see a scene very like the tall grass she and Sullivan laid in, as well as one of a faceless parent tending to a child. She presents Sullivan with a watercolor as a gift before one of their trysts. When he leaves, he does not take the watercolor. I assumed she bought the tall-grass painting as a memory of their first love, but instead, she bought the parent and child, inviting him to join her in the future.

Urzendowsky plays a man-child beautifully, his faux maturity in breaking with Camille at the start of the film utterly realistic, and his despair in the later stages heartfelt. I liked the way Hansen-Løve developed the relationship between Lorenz and Camille, with only a handful of meaningful smiles that signal a growing attraction, not the quicksilver clinch that seems a prerequisite these days to enduring love. Créton’s performance is perfect in the teenage years, and she chooses a very contained Camille to signal the deep grief over her lost love, a grief that spans years. In some ways, this emotionally reserved attitude took some energy out of the film, but the choice was honest and appropriate, so this is a mere quibble. Less of a quibble is the short wig Créton wore during her schooling phase; it is an appropriate symbol of sorrow-induced celibacy and turning to the psychologically masculine realm of achievement, but it wouldn’t have taken much to buy a wig that looked more natural.

Goodbye First Love worked for me on two levels, the real and the symbolic. If you choose only one view of this film, you will still find great rewards within from a skilled director with a strong handle on the meaning of images and her fine cast.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/07/2012 to 9:45 pm

    Yes indeed Marilyn, it worked for me as well. I gave it 4 of 5 stars and raved about the performances of Sebastian Urzendowsky and Lola Creton and the beautifully-modulated direction of Ms. Hansen-Love. Seems like she even came to this project with the right name too! Ha! You do a beautiful job delineating this human phenomenon, which has been tackled many times over the years, even this past year with a solid film titled LIKE CRAZY. My first experiences with this kind of films date back to the 70’s with Arthur Baron’s JEREMY and Alan J. Pakula’s THE STERILE CUCKOO. But heck we can even bring in George Roy Hill’s A LITTLE ROMANCE and Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET into this equation, or even the taboo ALPINE FIRE and the gay-themed BEAUTIFUL THING and SHOW ME LOVE. All of these are wonderful, and there are a number of others that would rate highly.

    Love’s film is psychologically perceptive and it impressively captures fleeting romanticism by eschewing plot for an episodic structure that allows for a deeper understanding of the characters and the rise and fall of such encounters. The film also captures the way that romantic involvement forces everything else to the sidelines, making romance an emotion that define’s life’s essence for those experiencing it. This is a moving film that is hard to shake well after you leave the theatre. I understand the film is autobiographical for Ms. Love.

    Terrific review!

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