A poignant sense of time’s unyielding forward progress and a mood of deep adolescent sorrow aren’t enough to overshadow the insufferable blankness of Goodbye First Love‘s navel-gazing protagonists. As with her prior The Father of My Children, Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest features a divided structure, leapfrogging in time over the course of a decade in the life of Camille (Lola Créton), who at 15 years old in 1999 finds herself head over heels for Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a bushy-haired charmer who’s simultaneously infatuated with Camille and yet not quite ready for commitment. Like scenes of Sullivan biking down winding roads in the early morning, Hansen-Løve’s early sequences of Camille and Sullivan cavorting in bed and around town exude a lackadaisical naturalness, focusing intently on the mundane activities of, and excessively gooey proclamations of love made by, its characters, whose feelings for each other are expertly depicted as prone to typical teenage over-dramatization. Consecrated by promises of suicide should the other ever abandon the relationship, Camille and Sullivan’s bond is authentically self-absorbed and narrow-sighted, though such accuracy creates a nagging issue that plagues much of the film: The two are off-putting children incapable of seeing any big picture, wrapped up as they are in their teary-eyed, fervently unhinged devotion, lust, longing, and misery.
While enjoying a getaway to a country house located amid an Edenic paradise of verdant foliage in which Camille and Sullivan happily frolic, the couple comes undone when Sullivan confesses his plan to drop out of school and visit South America for 10 months on an ill-defined mission of self-discovery, a decision that throws Camille into a years-long spiral of depression that she later confesses was “like a void.” Such juvenile overreaction might elicit more empathy were Créton able to slightly endear us to—or at least create an active interest in—Camille, but despite her pouty good looks, fondness for wearing no bras, and eventual adoption of a Jean Seberg-short ‘do as an act of moving on with her life, Créton fails to suggest that her character has anything approaching an engaging inner life. Instead, she’s just a dull me-first cipher, even once she shacks up with older architect Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke), a man who represents stability and responsibility in contrast to Sullivan’s impulsive self-interest, and whom she unremorsefully betrays once Sullivan eventually reappears and shows renewed interest in rekindling things.
Camille’s fondness for designing homes speaks to her reconstruction of her life post-Sullivan (a process that, like a house, is built from the inside-out), a leaden metaphor that fails to bestow fetching-pixie Camille with real weight. Alternating between more free-flowing camerawork and traditional setups, Hansen-Løve’s attentive direction conveys shifting emotions and interpersonal schisms with aplomb, and a recurring riverbank location captures the intrinsic pull of first love, as well as the way in which everything in life eventually streams onward. Furthermore, her ability to capture truth in off-the-cuff interactions between friends, family, and lovers—as during a casual exchange on a bed between Camille and her pipe-smoking father (Serge Renko)—is often bracing, even though Camille’s insubstantiality eventually pushes the proceedings perilously close to becoming the very type of pretentious French film for which Sullivan openly confesses disdain. Just as its river imagery is finally accompanied by an egregiously on-the-nose folk song (one of many on the soundtrack) featuring the opening lyrics “All that I have is a river,” Goodbye First Love is an affair that mistakes pretty-kid pouting, long silences, and heavy-handed environment-reflects-character symbolism for actual insight.