“Un amour de jeunesse” is literally translated as “A young love” or “A youthful romance,” but for its U.S. release, the poignant feature by Mia Hansen-Love takes the name “Goodbye, First Love,” which is more a goal or a hope than anything that ever unfolds in the heart of the film’s protagonist, Camille. For that reason, it’s a perfect translation, encapsulating the timeless feeling of the film, emphasizing it lasting impacts rather than painting it as a brief period. Goodbye, First Love is very much about the lasting effects of that youthful romance that shape character well into adulthood.
Camille (Lola Créton) is, at the plot’s beginning, 15 years old, hopelessly in love with the older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Hansen-Love wisely rights Sullivan as a bit too egotistical and insensitive for us to fully agree with him, though what he wants does make sense. He is probably in love with Camille, but despite dropping out of school, he pursues his goals quite fervently, and that means he is going to go to South America for 10 months with a couple of friends, leaving Camille all alone. She delivers the mopey “I’ll die without you” that makes adults laugh and is stupid in retrospect but is barely an exaggeration coming from the mouth of a limerent teenager.
Thanks to her youth and his insensitivity, we tend to side with her, but she does not have too many lines to speak. There’s no hope for convincing Sullivan to stay, and as his letters to her become less frequent, she resigns herself to move on, and that’s what Goodbye, First Love is really about. It’s not quite a coming-of-age story, but the preciousness of youth is a recurring theme; really, Goodbye, First Love is about the never-ending impressions and ineffability of first love, and the indiscrete nature of love in general, rendered beautifully thanks to the specificity of Hansen-Love’s story.
With that in mind, it would be naïve to try to portray them with the precision of dialogue or plot. Instead, Hansen-Love is all about the mise-en-scene, changing Camille’s hair and clothing as she reaches different benchmarks in her post-Sullivan life. Likewise, there is a particular importance paid to time—the film covers about eight years, which means that a subtle use of the seasons to bring about a pathetic fallacy is never too difficult. The winter of Camille’s discontent mirrors the turning of winter to spring, and her emotional rebirth also manifests itself appropriately. Other loves come and go, as if guided by the changes in time, hoping that Camille can mature with the natural life that Stéphane Fontaine’s beautiful, long takes always find room for. Similarly, note the presence of the color red on Camille’s person in breakthroughs of emotional clarity and/or moral dilemmas. The whole film is instilled with that sense of passionate lyricism, emphasizing the lasting impressions made on Camille during her formative years, and how they continue to shape her all through her youth.
The impression is that these feelings, even when they seem controlled, are never gone. They move in cycles, just like the weather, and the equally maddening and poetic third act helps to prove it. But it’s the second act, in which an ambitious Camille is fast getting the attention of a professor (in a surprisingly not-creepy way) that is the biggest highlight of the film. It catches Camille at her most likable and relatable phrase, moving on but never fully recovered, but smart and artistic, and with it comes a couple memorable scenes in which the double-edged nature of architecture—as both an art and a practical concern—also highlights the always changing nature of Camille’s love. She loves again in this second act, more responsibly and maturely but less passionately, but as the film quietly but assuredly comes together, these differences become a lot deeper than they originally appeared to be.
It’s very smart pacing, one that helps us come to retrospective realizations along with our protagonist and makes the whole journey feel much less distant. But the beauty of it all is that Camille is always learning, never fully over Sullivan but always determined to move on. Even eight years later, it’s a feeling and a passion that she wants to replicate even while basking in the benefits of her maintained youth but newfound adulthood. Camille, though, just like Sullivan—who could have a movie both similar to and also entirely different from this one, told from his point of view—never seems to age, played by the same actor all through the years. It all converges in the beautiful final scene, no less predictable than anything else in the picture but no less powerful for being so, either.