Because it makes no grand gestures, Goodbye First Love is a deceptively simple movie. Essentially, it tells the story of a young woman torn between two men, both of whom she loves deeply but in completely different ways. Its simplicity is cleverly masked by a rather unconventional style, which is about as far removed from a Hollywood romance as it can be. The film flows rather organically, with most of the traditional cinematic enhancements stripped away. It’s less about plot and drama and more about character. It may not be immediately apparent, but we are witnessing a person on the road towards maturity. This isn’t to suggest she began at innocence, nor that she will end up understanding everything; all we know is that she’s in the process of becoming.
Her name is Camille (Lola Créton). When we first meet her, it’s 1999, and she’s a fifteen-year-old living with her parents in Paris. She’s having an intensely physical affair with a teenage boy named Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who has given up on school. Despite their repeated assertions that they each are the love of their lives, they argue very easily. This is easy to explain: They’re both still young and naïve, and they don’t yet know what they want out of life. Sullivan yearns to experience the world and plans a trip to South America with a friend of his. Camille is threatened by his wanderlust and continuously threatens to harm herself. If he leaves, he may forget about her entirely and meet another girl. She claims that she’s not looking for anything more than him.
Sullivan assures her that he will only be gone for ten months and that he’ll keep in touch. And so, off he goes. Camille copes as best she can as it transitions into 2000, receiving the occasional letter from Sullivan. In all his letters, he continues his practice of boldly asserting his love for her. They are, in fact, so bold that they come within an inch of being cruel and emotionally manipulative. In one letter, he tells with, rather poetically, that his love for her is holding him back. If he wasn’t so in love with her, if she didn’t plague his thoughts on a daily basis, he might actually enjoy his travels. Quite suddenly, the letters stop coming. A devastated Camille soon ends up in a depression clinic, at which point her father (Serge Renko) tells her that it’s finally time to take the next step.
Never once do follow Sullivan, whose stay in South America lasts much longer than ten months. We do, however, follow Camille over the next seven years. During this time, she finishes high school, attends a design college, studies architecture, and lands a job at a company run by a Norwegian architect named Lorenz (Magne Håvard Brekke), who’s separated from his wife in Berlin and seemingly estranged from his son. We see their relationship develop from employer and employee to casual acquaintances to emotional confidants to lovers. He may not express his love for Camille quite as vocally as Sullivan would have, but it’s obvious that he cares for her deeply. She too cares about him. It isn’t the same as it was with Sullivan, though. There’s more than just physical affection; there’s a clear understanding of who they are.
It isn’t until 2007 that Camille and Sullivan finally reunite. An exact date is not given, but it seems he had returned from South America quite a while ago. He now gets by as a photographer in Marseille, which he likes much better than Paris. Initially, it seems like their relationship has cooled and that they will continue merely as friends. But after a while, it’s obvious that the old feelings have resurfaced. I expected this from Camille, but I have to admit, I didn’t expect it from Sullivan. Memories of her continue to haunt him, and at one point, he tearfully wishes that they were back together. When Lorenz is called away on business, Camille and Sullivan regularly convene and make love, all the while sensing that what they’re experiencing isn’t likely to last.
Having gone this far in my review, I fear that I’ve made this movie sound like a sentimental tearjerker. It’s almost impossible to conceive of given the subject matter, but Goodbye First Love is about as devoid of sentiment as it could possibly be. Rather than indulge in fairytale contrivances, love and relationships are examined in terms of very plausible, very concrete physical and emotional needs. All leads to an indirect and rather languid ending, which is actually treated less like an ending and more like just another scene. As realistic as this may be, my innate American sensibilities had me longing for something a little more distinct. I’m not saying everything had to be wrapped up in neat little package, although some sense of closure would have been nice.
Written by Chris Pandolfi