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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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times