At one point in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, an architecture professor lectures his students about “glimmer,” which he defines as that quality of light that can turn an ordinary structure into something special. Goodbye First Love has that glimmer in spades. In telling the story of a teenage romance that ends in heartbreak—and then following the decade-long aftermath—Goodbye First Love covers dramatic ground so well-trod, it might as well be paved. But the details of the piece are wholly Hansen-Løve. The writer-director of 2009’s quietly powerful The Father Of My Children has an eye for the small moments that define the relationships between characters and their environment. And where The Father Of My Children holds back too much from the emotions of a life-changing event, Goodbye First Love embraces every sloppy, embarrassing feeling.
Beginning with the last weeks of a passionate romance—which ends when the dreamy Sebastian Urzendowsky leaves the moody Lola Créton to go on a 10-month trip, then gradually slacks off on letters and phone calls—Hansen-Løve evokes the burning intensity of young love, showing how it can be so painful for the participants that being together is sometimes more miserable than breaking up. She then shows Créton struggling to get her head straight in the ensuing years, until she finally settles in with an older man (that “glimmer”-explaining prof, played by Magne Brekke) and launches a promising architecture career of her own. Inevitably, Urzendowsky returns and the exes fall back into old patterns, only now it’s Urzendowsky who seems like the clingy, immature one. Créton humors him, though, because even though she’s only in her early 20s, she aches to reclaim the ardor of who she used to be.
Goodbye First Love sometimes tells when it should show, and in their younger guises, particularly, Créton and Urzendowsky come off as so self-absorbed that they’re almost insufferable. Plus there’s a heavy measure of predictability to the plot. But that’s only because the situation is so common in real life: the devotion that borders on suffocation, the hurt that feels like it’ll never go away, and the maturation that leads to a different set of priorities. Hansen-Løve romanticizes the fervor of adolescent relationships, focusing particularly on the way young lovers feel prematurely like grown-ups, as they loll about in bed together and run little errands for each other. Then Goodbye First Love illustrates how these young people are fooling themselves, and why their relationship is untenable. The result is a movie that’s poignant, bittersweet, and true.