Review: Goodbye, First Love

A French film about life and love, from acclaimed director Mia Hansen-Løve

There are some things that only the French can get away with. Halfway through this lovely film, one of the characters said, a propos of nothing, in the middle of a fairly mundane school trip “I'm not so miserable today. There is a gap in the clouds overhead”.

The film starts, in true Gallic style, with the young, beautiful teenage couple, Camille and Sullivan naked in bed together, but everything (for them) goes downhill from here. Camille is 15, vulnerable and intense, Sullivan, 19, keen to run away from Paris, which he hates, to the freedom of South America. Camille, desperately in love with him in the way that one only ever is with one's first love, cries, tracks his progress on an enormous map tacked to her bedroom wall, and treasures his letters (it's 1999, presumably before you could get online from any old shack in the middle of nowhere). Eventually, he breaks it off, with the immortal line “I see your face when I'm kissing other people”.

For the rest of the film, we follow Camille, played by Lola Créton, over the sad, lonely next few years of her life. She becomes an architect, settles down with her college professor, and eventually meets Sullivan again. Drawn into an affair with him, she discovers that first love really does stick.

Mia Hansen-Løve, the director, has been getting international attention after her first film, Father of My Children came out in 2009. That film, a family drama with suicide at its heart, gives no easy answers, and makes the audience questions assumptions they didn't know they held. Goodbye First Love has a similar effect. “Goodbye first love”, as pointed out in the Guardian, is a slightly wonky translation of Un Amour de Jeunesse, as the film doesn't deal in certainties. The film is unashamedly autobiographical, unsurprisingly; it is just like life.

Some will no doubt find Camille's character improbable: she is whiney, over the top and obsessive. In other words, the lovestruck teenage girl down to the last detail: able to start fights out of nothing, prone to tears and terribly passionate. Lola Créton, just 16 at the time of filming, is brilliant. Sullivan, played by Sebastian Urzendowsky, is devastatingly convincing as an uncaring teenage boy, thoughtless, impatient, incredulous.

Pleasingly, no facile effort is made to make the character look older over the eight year timespan of the film, they look exactly the same, a subtle point about how little we really change, despite the trappings of adulthood. The film takes its characters very seriously, there is no patronising distance between the viewer and the characters. First love is the most important thing in the world to them, and so it becomes to us, swept along in the narrative.

A special mention, too, for the soundtrack, a pleasingly international blend of French, English and Chilean folk music. A subtle hint that the story being unveiled is a universal one, perhaps.
 

Mia Hansen-Love Photograph: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser