Published Nov 06, 2013A staple of Quebecois cinema of late — and a cyclic trajectory in Canadian cinema overall — is familial or marital destruction occurring in the absence of urban stimuli. Cottage getaways, summer holidays and planned retreats have a tendency to go awry in French Canada, leaving families in a state of turmoil, forced to confront the imperfections and inconsistencies in their personal lives after leaving their career and social obligations behind.
With less severity, and resultantly less overall effect, 1st Love travels terrain similar to that in Jaloux, Lost Song and even (to a lesser degree) Tom at the Farm. City life, though mentioned and clearly lining the margins, is removed from the context of the film, which picks up in rural Quebec where 13-year-old Antoine (Loic Esteves) and his parents Marie (Macha Grenon) and François (Benoît Gouin) plan to spend a relaxing summer escaping it all.
Though they've escaped the persistent drone of the metropolis, the imposition of forced introspection manifests itself initially in the nascent hormonal urges of Antoine after meeting Anna (Marianne Fortier), the slightly older girl living next door. Initially, this quiet, carefully observant coming-of-age drama plays passively; we're mostly watching Antoine watch Anna from afar, hiding behind trees while she sunbathes and lingering outside her home to peep through her window. But as things progress, his parents, too, start to demonstrate subtle discord, smiling in polite company and seemingly getting along, yet reacting to perceived slights when backs are turned.
François offers a very timid explanation of how he knows Anna's boozy actress mother, suggesting youthful sexual interaction. Marie, having her own flirtation with a local boy they've hired to mow their lawn, takes note of this likelihood but fails to notice that her husband is paying far more attention to Anna than he is to her mother.
Writer/director Guillaume Sylvestre isn't overly concerned with the melodrama brewing under the slow-building tension. Much like his contemporaries, he's more interested in observing the moments that lead up to conflict and the discomforting void that follows. Our perspective on the situation is shaped by Antoine's partially distracted perspective, having an idealized perception of his parents that is distorted only when they impose on his initial dalliance with sexual curiosity, working as a metaphor for the greater psychic pain of lost innocence.
While this is all carefully considered and quite well-realized, Sylvestre fails mainly in capturing the emotional ire of the quiet moments, vacillating between distanced observation and faux realism, trying to remain objective about the subjective perspective of his protagonist. The inevitable outcome thus has slightly less effect than it could have, which is exacerbated by his refusal to exploit composition and body language to reiterate the unspoken themes of the film and feelings of his characters.
Leaving things open to interpretation is commendable, as is letting the actors tell the story. What's missing here is a bigger consideration for how these images and moments would blend together. Similarly, the only lingering shots tend to exist specifically for narrative progression, leaving little time for in-the-moment reflection despite telling a story with little dialogue or substantial action.
Regardless, 1st Love does effectively capture youthful heartache and the deafening silence of rural self-awareness with aptitude and aplomb, which is no easy feat. No supplements are included with the DVD, which is common for English-region releases of French-Canadian movies. (eOne)