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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: French Accents

Goodbye First Love


Monsieur Lazhar

First love, a term that often has a touch of the patronizing, is a moving truth in a new French film called Goodbye First Love. The writer-director, Mia Hansen-Løve, whose third feature this is, has addressed her subject with complete emotional confidence. She knows how it is often “understood” and disprized; she also wants us to see some aftereffects.

Camille is a fifteen-year-old student in Paris when we first see her—nude, as her beloved boyfriend, the nineteen-year-old Sullivan, pulls the covers off her. (His unusual first name is never discussed: it certainly has no import.) Her nudity leads exactly where it is supposed to lead, and we are instantly plunged into an old semantic question: How much of love, an immeasurable mystery, is composed of the less nebulous element of sex? Camille and Sullivan believe that they are thoroughly in love even if it’s the first time for both, and both can hardly stop copulating—not only with each other. Each even knows about the other’s extracurricular activities and, without liking them, is not put off.

The only thing they do more than couple when together is walk. They spend much time in the country, and they walk more than any couple I can remember in films. Even alone each walks a lot. Hansen-Løve means us, I think, to see their joint walking as a kind of ingestion of their sex experience and their solo walks as a means of passing the time when alone.

The four parents are generous and warm. They behave toward the youngsters as if they expected this condition. The parents’ chief concern is their children’s age: this love affair occurs so early in their lives that, however fervent, it must be threatened by subsequent events.

And they are right. Sullivan wants to go to South America on an eight-month educational trip (we never learn the subject). Camille says she will die without him. He refuses to pay with his life for her love and says she will not die. He goes. She doesn’t die. In the first months he writes frequently, and on a large map of South America she marks his progress with yellow push pins. At last the day comes when, dejected, she pulls all the pins out of the map.

Time passes. Days moved slowly in the months when she longed for him; now, as the director suggests, years pass more quickly. Seven years later—it is now 2007—Camille is an architecture student in a seminar conducted by Lorenz, an attractive man of early middle age. Not to our surprise, in story terms, he thinks that she shows special talent, and he becomes interested personally—as does she. Then, quite accidentally, some eight years after her last glimpse of Sullivan, they meet in the street. He now lives in Marseilles and is a photographer. Almost as if to test if they were really in love back then, they resume their affair, and they find out—the import of first love.

Hansen-Løve is clearly a director of ingenuity and empathy. As for the first, she uses iris-shots neatly and elisions sensibly; for her feelings, she has woven a full-length film out of what in other hands might have proved fragile. Her subtlest triumph is in the performances of Lola Créton as Camille and Sebastian Urzendowsky as Sullivan. Both are so fully committed that we almost feel at times that we are watching a privileged documentary. Their verity is the film’s prime element.

IT MUST BE TOUGH for Juliette Binoche and her managers to choose new material. She has made so many films—dozens of them—that, even allowing for the fact that her maturing offers new opportunities, something original is hard to find. Her most recent choice is Elles, and unfailingly appealing as she is in her own pliant way, the project seems a bit enforced, as if she needed to start a film by a certain date and this was the only script on hand to pass some sort of muster.

Here Binoche is a Parisian journalist, currently working for the magazine Elle, married and with two sons, one of them a teenager. She is now working on a story about student prostitutes, girls who pay their way in university by turning tricks, and she is currently seeing two such girls, one French and one Polish. (The director and co-author of the script is a Polish woman, Malgorzata Szumowska.) Both are appealing in a frank and unembarrassed way. But very soon after the story is broached, we suspect where it is going. Binoche will have less effect on the girls than vice versa.

Much detail is laid on about the journalist’s family life, especially a dinner she is preparing for her husband’s boss, faintly suggesting that the wear and tear of her daily grind gives the girls’ lives some hint of glamour, a view that not many feminists would endorse. Sex, since it is the subject of most of her talks with these girls, is very much on her mind, in ways that—we don’t know this, but it is likely—she has not previously tried. Lesbianism and various methods of encounter are here to show, among other things, that Binoche is up to date in permissiveness on screen. Also, at one point she visits her invalid old father and massages his feet, a distant reminder of what the girls have reported of their work.

So little else happens in the film other than these episodes—some trite family squabbles, mostly about the adolescent son—that they must bear the burden of the film, but they can’t. Further, we are assured that any unconventional behavior on her part is temporary. The last shot is of the journalist and her family at their breakfast table, munching away as ever.

Binoche’s career difficulty—finding good new material—is not one of the world’s major problems; still we can be glad that it exists, a proof of the durability of a gifted and ever-welcome actress. We can just accept that Elles is one of her lesser choices and hope that she will keep on choosing.

IN MONSIEUR LAZHAR the language is French; the place is not French legally: Canada. We are in an elementary school in Montreal, a modern attractive place. It is recess time, and the yard is filled. A boy runs back inside to get some milk. He discovers the body of a teacher who has hanged herself.

This austere beginning launches a film that means to warm us. The past teacher is not the subject: her replacement is. The violence of her departure is used only as a means of employment crisis. The principal, a caring woman, is eager to get someone who is not only competent but equally caring, someone who can deal healingly, after that suicide, with boys and girls of ten or eleven.

In walks a man who applies for the job. He has read the news of the death. The principal questions him. His name is Bachir Lazhar, he is Algerian, and taught in Algeria for seventeen years. The principal is impressed. Lazhar is congenial, articulate, understanding of the situation. She engages him. We assume that she has done the necessary investigating.

Monsieur Lazhar is a blessing. He is an effective teacher and a quick respondent to these smart, sharp kids. An extra pleasure soon arises for us. Lazhar is not only a welcome new teacher: the man who plays him is a welcome performer. In fact, all the realism of the school, faculty, parents, is only background for him. The suicide is there in order for him to deal with it ex post facto. The whole film is a pleasing showpiece for him. Before long we are enjoying this bravura presentation of a well-known performer.

Though not known here, his name is Fellag, and he is vastly experienced in Algerian theater and film, along with appearances in France and elsewhere. (He also publishes short stories and novels.) As the film progressed, I saw that this professional aspect—presenting a good performer to us—was adding to my enjoyment. With a few folds, this story could have made a script for John Barrymore, like Topaze, or for Chaplin in anything where he comes in, delights for a while, then goes down the road alone.

Fellag is not near the greatness of those luminaries, but he certainly is accomplished enough to be worth this film. The writer-director Philippe Falardeau understood him and helped. At the end, when discoveries are made about his Algerian past, quite different from teaching, the fact that the principal did not investigate him earlier doesn’t bother us. It made the picture possible.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY keeps ending. The Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra died in March at the age of ninety-two. For the film world, he was a major figure. He wrote for and with Antonioni, Fellini, Tarkovsky, and Angelopoulos. With Amarcord he and Fellini were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He was also enormously prolific in pop film. Not enough? He was a leading poet of his generation.

He collaborated with Antonioni on six films, including the great trilogy L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse. The director once told me that when he had an idea for a film, he went away with Guerra for a couple of weeks andtalked about it with him. In the introduction to a volume of his screenplays, Antonioni said, “With Tonino we have long and violent arguments; he’s helpful to me that way. But with him I can keep quiet as long as I wish without feeling embarrassed. And for this he’s even more helpful to me.” (Almost a scene in L’Eclisse.) In any case, something more than a grazie at Guerra’s passing.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.