GOODBYE FIRST LOVE by Kat Asharya
GOODBYE FIRST LOVE
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Opens in NY & LA April 20
There is a store in Paris called Soeur that sells clothes for teenage girls. It offers a more sophisticated take on essentially the same palate of fashion that one can find in an American Eagle or even Abercrombie & Fitch: flouncy skirts in cute patterns, grown-up smock tops, jauntily gamine jackets in shrunken proportions, only in more muted colors and more streamlined, discerning cuts. The style of Soeur maintains a comfortable link to the innocent fashion staples of the girlhood, but the knowing cuts for burgeoning bodies hint something more is coming. It’s clothes for girls who will lie in beds and dream of their first love, first kiss, first sex, who occupy the interstitial space of adolescence, where our dreams and urges are adult but our emotional resources and abilities to manage them are still developing.
It’s this style of clothing that initially defines the main character of Mia Hansen-Løve’s coming- of-age drama Goodbye First Love. But ironically, when we first meet Camille, a sober, serious-minded but passionate girl of 15, she’s naked, buried under the covers in the bed of her 18-year-old lover, the affable, easy-going but somewhat feckless Sullivan. Our first good look at her – a wide shot of her standing naked with Sullivan in the bathroom, staring at her body in the mirror – offers a respectfully distant but full look at her nubile, slim, gently curved body. “You’re so pretty,” he says to her, still looking at her nude body. “It’s wild!” She mulls cutting her hair, but he tells her not to, clearly enamored with its lovely, tousled appearance.
It’s a type of casual exchange commonplace to lovers: admiration, affection, a proprietary assertion of possession and investment in the bodies and beauty of loved ones. But because it is commonplace does not lessen its importance, particularly to those participating in the exchange for the first time. Camille’s deshabille and nakedness up top in the film indicate she is, above everything else, a lover, an erotic and sensual being, and much of the rest of Goodbye First Love will trace the impact of moments like this on the unfurling of her adulthood.
Camille begins the film nude, but the first time we see her with clothing underscores another aspect of her character: she is young, a student still. She and Sullivan walk together in the streets of Paris after their tryst, their conversation revealing their different emotional temperaments: Camille is dead serious and earnest, especially about their relationship, but Sullivan, despite his ardency and affection, is restless and eager to see more of the world. As she talks, Camille wears a red toggle coat particular to schoolgirls. But it’s not a fashionably gamine way of wearing it, in which boyish, youthful clothing creates a sharp exposition with the womanliness of the wearer. Worn by an actual young girl, it’s the clothing of innocence, of lack of experience – a costume worn by an ingenue.
As the film unfolds, Camille continues to wear the clothing of the ingenue, costumes that reflect a girlishness and gentle innocence: flowing floral miniskirts, cute tops in cute patterns, soft sweaters, jeans and again the red toggle coat, which both vividly marks her in the frame and continues to underscore her youthfulness. Hansen-Løve’s unobtrusive, natural directing gently and precisely guides us through other aspects of Camille’s life: sullen teenage exchanges with her mother in a typically narrow Parisian home, the way Sullivan comes to her window and how she greets him as “my Romeo.” It’s clear Camille is asserting herself as an adult, though she often runs up against the confines of her childhood, as well as her own naïve expectations about love and romance. She cannot reconcile, for instance, how Sullivan can profess his passion and love for her, but still wants to leave her and Paris to see more of the world. She’s a young woman in girl’s clothing, but hasn’t quite shed the skin of one and fully occupied the position of the other.
Even a trip to the countryside with Sullivan underscores the liminal psychological space Camille exists within. Going away on a trip with a lover is yet another first rite of adult bourgeois sexuality, but interestingly, Camille’s clothing – and self – has never seemed so girlish, underscoring her youth and naivete in a traditionally grow-up situation. Denim cutoffs, floral sundresses, a cutely pattered smock tops, tank tops, a straw hat Sullivan bought for her – they make up the wardrobe of her trip, emphasizing her fetching girlishness. They trip itself seems idyllic and pastoral, set in Ardeche in the Loire Valley among sunlit fields of verdant grasses and wild horses. But it comes at a particularly tense time in her and Sullivan’s relationship, and she makes impossible demands, despite Sullivan’s insistence that “You have to live your life as well.”
Hansen-Løve’s direction of the actors never lets emotion delve into melodrama, but the focus on nuances and reactions underlines both Camille’s intensely felt emotion and the almost childlike expression of it. Even when she and Sullivan are getting ready for bed on their trip, she demands he hurry up because she wants him. It’s both charmingly urgent and sexy – who hasn’t wanted a lover to hurry to bed? – but also demanding in the way children can be.
Of course, Sullivan eventually leaves for South America, on a quest of his own for experience and new horizons. And of course, Camille is devastated, as the film transitions into a montage juxtaposing a voiceover of Sullivan reading his letters to Camille over images of her lying plangent on beds, full of longing; tracing his journey on a map, faithfully marking each of his stops with pins; but also romping in the schoolyard with her girlfriends, underscoring her youthfulness and innocence. Camille even revisits the house in Loire Valley with her family, which emphasizes how she’s unable to fully shed childhood, or her memories of Sullivan.
If this were any other typical Hollywood coming-of-age drama, the rest of the film would either find Camille “washing that man out of her hair” with a convivial gaggle of girlfriends, going out on the town and meeting another suitor tout de suite, or taking off after Sullivan to reclaim his focus and attention. But the film takes a different turn in its narrative structure, instead lingering on Camille’s years of grief and inability to pick herself up from Sullivan’s desertion. Eventually, Camille takes down the maps and pins tracing Sullivan’s journey through South America. A few years later, she cuts her hair short, the style now pixieish and androgynous. Her mode of clothing has changed slightly as well: graphic t-shirts, brighter colors, more boyish shapes in a kind of collegiate-bohemian mode. We even see her in uniforms, marking her participation in the worlds of work and community: she dons a stewardess-type uniform for one job, and then a kind of go-go dancer outfit, complete with red sequined miniskirt and platinum blonde wig, for another job in a nightclub. These uniforms touch on typically “attractive,” even provocative feminine roles, but Camille dons them for work, not to attract another man or signal her sexual availability.
Camille’s appearance seems more extroverted, but she spends most of this sequence in near silence, not engaging in dialogue with other characters outside incidental conversations with professors or her mother. It’s as if she is isolated from the outside world and from others, stranded in solitude and retreat from the world. The film pays protracted attention to Camille at various jobs or in classes, often framing her as as a figure adrift in wide shots full of activity and bustle. But the fluidity of Hansen-Løve’s directing and editing style never feels more or less than it should be, and accepts that Camille’s outsized reaction is not a defect or strength, but merely a part of her deep-felt, intense character.
But Camille eventually emerges out of her isolation, as she engages in a wider net of experiences and ideas. She begins to discover a passion for architecture, a true vocation that engaged her intellect. Her hair grows back, and her clothes return to a kind of demure girlishness, though rendered in much stricter cuts and darker, sober colors that seem better suited to her seriousness of purpose and intentness of character. She embarks on a journey of her own, rendered in a similar montage of the one that traced Sullivan’s journey, only hers centers on great buildings throughout Europe. A new love emerges during this trip: her architecture professor, Lorenz, an older Norwegian man with a sharp intelligence and a more settled character over the cheerful but flighty philosophizing of Sullivan. He and Camille begin to conduct a tenuous, delicate courtship, but Hansen-Løve’s treatment of the new love affair feels almost incidental: what is important is not the new relationship, which is rendered in elliptical fragments of scenes and moments between the pair, but the fact that Camille is acquiring an occupation that will form an important bedrock of her character. The new love –and its key differences from her first youthful passion – plays an important role, but it is by no means central.
By de-emphasizing the love affair, Hansen-Løve seems to give equal weight to other aspects of women’s coming-of age beyond love and eroticism. Camille seems to have found a safe, healthy outlet for her intense engagement in both work and love, emphasized in the return of her longer, tousled hair and demure, girlish clothing. Her costumes begin to mix items from earlier in the film – a cream scarf, a striped t shirt – with those from the second part of the film, and new ones also appear: a more grownup purse, a darker, more sophisticated coat, emphasizing Camille’s slow growth into adulthood.
But similar to how items of clothing can be sartorial motifs, appearing once again in new configurations and outfits, so too can emotional attachments reappear and reassert themselves. Sullivan reenters Camille’s life, just as she seems ready to embark on a truly adult existence with Lorenz. Interestingly, Sullivan’s appearance is very much the same as from earlier in the film: same mop of curly hair, same kind of jacket, jeans and scarf. Despite his career as a photographer, he seems little changed: still the restless, romantic philosopher-dreamer that Camille first fell in love with. Camille’s also somewhat similar in style to her younger self, but with subtle differences. But does Sullivan see them? And will this relationship derail Camille’s carefully wrought adult existence?
In many ways, Sullivan’s reappearance, though perhaps a narrative requirement to the riddle set up in the film’s beginning, is the least interesting part of the film. Hansen-Løve moves quickly to the expected denouement of the affair – both Camille and Sullivan hit the same wall as before, and Camille even receives a goodbye letter from Sullivan at her mother’s apartment, where she breaks down in tears once again in her bedroom. Her mother finds her, reads the letter and asks the question we as the audience are asking ourselves: “When are you finally going to get over him?”
The final section of the film answers the question succinctly and elegantly, both on the level of narrative and image. Camille returns to the house where she and Sullivan both travelled earlier in the film. She is even wearing a dress from earlier in the film, a summery striped shift. She wanders in the house, no doubt full of memory and association, looking for Lorenz, who has come there with her. She finds him and arranges to meet him by the river, and then goes back to the house to fetch a walking stick and a hat.
She tries on a few hats and alights on the one that Sullivan gave her, ages ago. Despite the somewhat heavy symbolism, it’s a lightly handled moment, and she places it casually on top of her head. She walks down to the river, where she places her blanket down and changes out of her dress and hat into her swimming suit. As she swims, the wind blows the hat into the river, and the film closes with a wide shot of the hat winding down the river. No doubt it is a highly symbolic moment for a film that has so far precisely and delicately traced Camille’s inner world with subtlety and restraint. But Hansen-Løve ’s final cinematic gesture seems to emphasize how letting go of a first love can sometimes be surprisingly light and serendipitous, and how it can happen when you notice it least. It seems a graceful, light way to conclude an attachment that shadows but no way entirely dominates Hansen-Løve ’s coming-of-age story, which places more of a premium on self-determination and purpose as a way to the elusive destination we called adulthood.
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