If you didn't know that Mia Hansen-Løve had drawn from her own past for her new film Goodbye First Love, you could probably guess. The film has the sting of the deeply personal, of experiences that have been felt rather than observed, and the effect of watching the movie is akin to leafing through the diary of a melancholy teenager, absorbed in their own romantic woes. Tales of teenage infatuation in cinema may be very familiar to us, but this sincerity of emotion elevates Goodbye First Love beyond its potentially mundane subject matter. We sense that Hansen-Løve knows what it feels like like to carry the weight of one's first love in your heart long after that lover has left your life, and she has the sensitivity and intelligence required to remind an audience of what that feels like too.
When Goodbye First Love introduces us to Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) they are 15 year-olds in the midst of an intense relationship. Their dialogue is littered with absolutes and ultimatums: "If you cut your hair I'll leave you," Sullivan tells Camille, before she retorts with "If you leave me I'll kill myself." But while both attest to the depths of their devotion to one another, the restless Sullivan also harbours a desire to explore the world, and he embarks upon a trip that leaves Camille inconsolable. She mopes around the house, eagerly awaiting his letters and marking his progress with pins on a map. Eventually, the letters grow more infrequent, and the map is taken down.
The passion that burns briefly but powerfully between Camille and Sullivan is just the starting point for Hansen-Løve's film, as she traces the fallout from this breakup and the way it resonates in Camille's life over the subsequent years. Goodbye First Love covers almost a decade in its young protagonist's life, allowing us to watch Camille as she grows from the callow youth we met in the film's early stages to a more mature and confident young woman, but those changes are not clearly marked by the director. The film slips from one year to the next without highlighting the passage of time, and the development of Camille's character happens in incremental – almost imperceptible – stages, all of which are expressed through Créton's luminous central performance. Camille is a potentially maddening character – indecisive, morose, selfish – but it feels as if Hansen-Løve and Créton are giving us an honest portrait of a character who is a slave to her emotions and romantic ideals.
Hansen-Løve's handling of this tale is fitting for a picture that's largely about lovesick adolescents. The pace is languid and dreamy, in a fashion that will beguile some but may test the patience of others. The director even alludes to this potential schism herself with a scene in which Sullivan and Camille walk out of a movie that she admired but he did not – "The actors are annoying. It's so talky, so complacent, so French!" he complains. Surely few will quibble with Hansen-Løve's skill as a filmmaker, though; even if her direction is so discreet it's sometimes hard to discern her hand guiding the drama. She has a gift for capturing moments that feel naturalistic and fresh, as if she has simply happened upon a scene and recorded it on a whim. She gives individual moments a fresh slant with her imaginative and unexpected musical selections, and her direction is so skilled in so many ways, the occasional clumsy or obvious touch – such as a too-literal final image – sticks our rather glaringly.
There is one other key sequence in the film that seems to be making a comment upon itself. Halfway through the story, Camille begins studying architecture and starts a relationship with her tutor, a man two decades her senior, in a narrative strand that clearly mirrors her real-life romance with Olivier Assayas, the director who was her mentor and later became her husband. As part of one of his lectures to his students, Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke) talks to them about "glimmer," the light that can transform an everyday object into something special and memorable, and that seems to me to be the best way to describe Mia Hansen-Løve's filmmaking. She has a lightness of touch and a feel for truth that sheds a particular light on the complex emotions of our lives, and such a gift is surely an indication of a natural-born filmmaker at work.