Here’s another interesting, random connection between two films seen close to each other: Café de Flore is a French-Canadian film, mostly in French, and Goodbye First Love is a French film, completely in French, and they share a fascination with love that is impossible to give up. The big difference being: one works, the other only partially.
I was filled with trepidation about Goodbye First Love, as writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous film, her second, Father Of My Children, rubbed me up the wrong way, despite glowing reviews and a laurel of some kind at Cannes. Actually, they’re French films, let’s give them their native titles: Le père de mes enfants; Un amour de jeunesse. Now, those with schoolboy French will have spotted that, while Father Of My Children is a literal translation of Le père de mes enfants, Un amour de jeunesse comes out as something like A Love Of Youth, or A Love Of The Young; Young Love, I guess. Even First Love. But the Goodbye part seems to be peculiar to the official English title. It gives a little more away, as this is a film about the first meaningful relationship of a Parisian girl, Camille (Lola Créton), aged 15 when we first meet her, and her tousle-haired boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who doesn’t just have a roving eye for the ladies, but a roving eye for the map. Here’s the goodbye part – and it’s given away in the trailer, which, again, I think I’ve seen about 50 times at various Curzon cinemas , where it’s an understandable shoo-in – Sullivan goes travelling in South America and ends the relationship. Typical boy.
There they are, in the top picture, young and in love and mistaken in the belief that their love will last forever. Hey, we’ve all been there. Hansen-Løve, who apparently based the story on her own experiences, captures the guileless optimism of this life-stage with a lightness of touch, and eliciting believable performances from her two leads; the way Camille puts up with Sullivan’s evident failure to live up to her many-splendoured plans for their relationship, and the way, in turn, that her needy demands on his heart and silly threats about not being able to live without him actually start to drive him away. When he hops it, she puts up a map of South America, and they exchange letters, but these letters dry up, and eventually, she tears the map down.
There’s nothing startlingly original in making a drama about saying goodbye to first love, and going over such adolescent ground could have spelled Twilight without the vampires as Camille moons about, her cheeks permanently moist with huffy, heartbroken tears (“When will you get over him?” asks her mum), but in playing the story out over a number of years and haircuts, Hansen-Løve shows how durable that first bond can be, and even when Camille has signed up to an architecture course and found a new distraction in her middle-aged tutor (a louche Norwegian, played by Magne-Håvard Brekke), the flame for Sullivan still burns.
I won’t roll out any more of the plot, other than to say it’s confidently and carefully seen through, consistently engaging and even occasionally surprising, so any trepidation about Hansen-Løve based upon my disappointment with Le père de mes enfants was misplaced. Maybe I just didn’t buy the trajectory of that one – which I won’t spoil – even though I’ve since read that it, too, was autobiographical and actually happened! I do have a massive soft spot for French films – just seeing the bread on the table and the red wine in glass tumblers, and recognising that all-pervasive air of bohemian ease, never mind the aesthetically pleasing rhythms of the language – but I’m not blind to individual faults. Elles, for instance, was awful, and its Frenchness did not save it. Goodbye First Love is superb.
Café de Flore isn’t. Having read a one-star assassination by not Peter Bradshaw but one of his lieutenants in the Guardian, and passed a five-star rave by the redoubtable Alan Jones for the online database of my very own Radio Times, I went into the cinema with one eye wide open and the other wide shut. Would it be a “narcissistic and fundamentally unpersuasive mosaic” with “the most stupid movie twist of the decade”? Or a “bold … uncompromising, passionate … intoxicating triumph that bristles with sly innovation”?
Well, it was a bit of both. From French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who, oddly, made serviceable heritage drama The Young Victoria, this is a striking collage of imagery built from fragments that represent not just actual memories but sometimes imagined ones. It cuts together two parallel stories: one about the domestic mid-life hari-kiri committed by a crashingly unsympathetic 40-year-old superstar DJ, Antoine (Kevin Parent), who, when he’s not at home in Montreal is out tickling clubs full of ravers with his supreme deckmanship, and when he’s not doing that, he’s leaving his angelic and lovely wife Carole (Hélène Florent) for a younger “bimbo”, which leaves him socially exiled by his parents and daughters; the other about a poor young single mum (Vanessa Paradis) in late-60s Paris who raises her Down’s Syndrome son Laurent (an amazing Marin Gerrier) with so much love it threatens to engulf them all.
Like Goodbye First Love, Café de Flore effectively depicts that unquestioning brand of love, the kind that can drive you mad. You can trace parallels between the lovey-dovey passion of Camille and Sullivan, and the similarly pubescent devotion of Antoine and Carole as young teenage Goths listening to The Cure’s Faith album, and making vows in eyeliner. In both films, we see that intoxicating brand of first love develop, although in the latter case, the pair get married, have kids and then split up. She even clingingly forgives him for straying with the blonde “bimbo” (as she’s called constantly by the eldest daughter), but he won’t go back as for him, the love is gone. It’s not as if his wife is old and worn out, or that his bimbo is particularly stunning and nubile, but it’s enough to cause this preening ninny of a man to make a bonfire of his marriage.
Throughout the film, and this is where it gets infuriating, we are teased with possible connections between the present and the past. When, in the final act, we are offered something concrete, it is in fact balsa wood, and although the final twist isn’t “the most stupid of the decade” (we are only two years into the decade), it’s not enough to hang a two-hour film on. And certainly not when that film seems to revel so arrogantly and confidently in the cosmic clues that are constantly dropped. Vallée seems to want us to keep asking, “How are these two stories linked?”, and we do, because he jumps from one to the other throughout, but if you demand an audience asks questions, you have to answer them in a meaningful way. (For instance: the coincidental party of adults with Down’s Syndrome who come through an airport arrivals hall in the present when Antoine is leaving for a foreign gig – he disappears into a blur; they emerge from a blur and come into focus – it’s an arresting image, but playing with the focus and putting it in slo-mo does not fool anyone; it’s actually a pretty manipulative coincidence. It’s never explained. But it’s hardly subtle enough to be called a visual rhyme, or an allusion.)
Goodbye First Love got better while I watched Café de Flore. Hansen-Løve sees no need to muck about and tantalise; she just tells her story, in order, and we’re with her. Vallée is clearly of a more experimental mindset and while his ambition can be applauded – and, to be fair, some of the fragments do pay off, like the vapour trail in the sky, and the sheer audacity of using a modern piece of dance music to link contemporary Montreal with 1960s Paris takes some front – but it veers towards pretense too often. And it’s way too forgiving towards Antoine’s infidelity. Typical man.