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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood