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With the right makeup, filmmakers can create the illusion of age (as Chaplin did, infamously, with Lita Grey in The Kid), but this illusion is often flimsy. Lasting film images draw their power from authenticity—if not in the form of documentary realism, then in some palpable conviction that shines through the make-believe. Créton's performance in First Love has that in spades. Though I doubt that film was shot in sequence (very few are), in each scene Créton seems to have internalized all that's come before. A remarkably self-aware actress, she succeeds in playing an adult by taking stock of the qualities that define her adolescence (which is what gives the early scenes their hyperreal electricity), then carefully subtracting them from her character. It's one of the best performances by a teenage actor I've seen—to compare it with Exarchopoulos's work in Blue would be unfair to the latter.
Around this time of year, I usually think about two of my favorite male characters in American movies, Sergeant Nathan Brittles of John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Jeffrey Wigand of Michael Mann's The Insider. Both are rueful, over-the-hill professionals played by younger actors at the height of their celebrity and sex appeal. John Wayne was just past 40 when Yellow Ribbon was made; Crowe was only 35 when he appeared in Insider. Yet both poignantly convey the wounded pride of authoritative men coming to realize they've outgrown their authority. Perhaps these performances gain from the youth of the performers. To empathize with these characters when they themselves were on top of the world, they must have had to acknowledge the fleeting nature of their success. Their performances reflect uncommon humility.