Indie Focus: ‘Goodbye First Love’ hits close to home for writer-director

The flush of young romance is full of strange, powerful new feelings, which can come to somehow deeply define a person for years. In “Goodbye First Love,” the third feature from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, a teenage girl struggles to move on after her boyfriend leaves for an extended trip to South America. Years go by and still she cannot shake her feelings for him even as she starts her adult life with a new relationship. When he reappears, the low flame of her dormant passion reignites.

For Hansen-Løve, the story of “Goodbye First Love,” playing now in Los Angeles and available on VOD on Friday, had additional resonance as it was drawn directly from her own life.

“All my films are inspired by things I’ve experienced or people I’ve known, people who are important to me, but this is the first time I have put myself in the middle of the story,” said Hansen-Løve, 31, by phone from her home in Paris. “In my first and second film I feel like I’m everybody. There is not a character directly inspired by me like it is in this film. Those are not autobiographical films, they are biographical films, and there is a big difference.”

After finishing her first film, “All Is Forgiven,” in 2007, Hansen-Løve had completed two scripts, one that became her second film, 2009’s “Father of My Children,” but also another that would eventually become “Goodbye First Love.” At the time, the “First Love” script was written from the boy’s point of view, while the finished film is very much told from the perspective of the girl.

Producer David Thion, who has worked with Hansen-Løve on all of her films, chalks up that initial approach to how close to home it hit. “My feeling is that it is a very personal, very intimate story, and at the very beginning I think she was a little bit shy, she wasn’t ready to tell the story from her point of view,” he said.

The story covers some eight years in the life of the main character, Camille, beginning when she is 15. It was important to Hansen-Løve that audiences feel the ripe tenderness of those early adolescent yearnings, so she wanted to cast an actress as close to that age as she could. Boldly, the decision was made that the character’s aging and maturity throughout the story would be conveyed not by makeup effects but simply through performance.

“I know for some people it’s going to be a problem that she’s obviously not the right age,” said Hansen-Løve of her handling of the maturing of the character. “But I prefer to be true about the whole first part, it’s the basis for the film. I think the emotions, the freshness, everything you have at that age, you can’t reproduce. It was something I really wanted to catch in the film.”

With that in mind, casting of the two main roles presented a specific problem. For the male lead, the boy who would haunt Camille, Hansen-Løve auditioned nearly a hundred actors before landing on the German-born Sebastian Urzendowsky.

“Nobody seemed to fit what she had in mind,” said Thion, “because I think she had in mind the real guy from real life.”

For the female lead, Hansen-Løve had seen the young actress Lola Créton in Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard” and knew that that was the girl she wanted to cast, drawn to what she called the actress’ “discrete intensity, she has something a little crazy about her.”

Which is not to say the filmmaker felt she had found her younger doppelganger in the actress, only 16 at the time of shooting.

“I liked the fact she was very different from me,” said Hansen-Løve. “I was never looking for somebody who would just be like me. Lola as a person is very different from me. I thought she could do it but grow it into something else. And when I look at the film now that’s what it is. It’s strange because it’s me and it’s not me. At the same time, it’s both.”

The filmmaker is preparing her next film, “Eden,” an ambitious project that will be split into two films as it covers a 20-year period through the 1990s and 2000s. Set amid the world of electronic music, the film again draws on the experiences of those around her, based partly on her brother, who helped work on the script.

Hansen-Løve acted as a teenager, appearing in two films for the director Olivier Assayas. She then wrote for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma — her first interview there was with Sofia Coppola — before turning to filmmaking herself. Along the way, she began a more personal relationship with Assayas, with whom she now has a child.

If there is an American filmmaker who might be analogous to Hansen-Løve, one possibility would be Coppola, who also makes films that are at times teasingly autobiographical and more interested in feeling and tone than straightforward narrative. As well, Coppola has had to handle the pressure of her famous family lineage, while Hansen-Løve has had to deal with grumblings that she has been assisted in her career by her personal relationship.

“To tell you the truth, I think it was a problem for her when she did her first two films,” said Thion. “But after ‘Father of My Children’ and especially ‘Goodbye First Love,’ I think people couldn’t ignore the fact that Mia is talented apart from Olivier Assayas.”

For her part, Hansen-Løve said she has never given much thought to such potential sniping that personal connections have aided her work.

“Maybe I’m just naïve, but I never thought I would be perceived like that,” she said. “Maybe there are things that are said like that, but I just don’t listen or am not really aware of it.

“And also, I’m so sure of myself as a filmmaker. Since writing my first film, I don’t know if the films are good or bad, but I am sure about what I am doing. I don’t feel vulnerable about that.”