Halfway through Mia Hansen-Løve’s eighth feature, one character pokes at another referring to life and its “complex things you wouldn’t understand.” One way or another, this gap of knowledge always becomes a powerful instrument in the hands of the French filmmaker together with the autobiographical undertones populating her body of work. In One Fine Morning, her finely tuned poeticism reaches new depths with Léa Seydoux as the lead character, loosely based on the director’s own experiences of trauma and grief.
We meet Sandra on a Parisian side street, as she makes her way to her father’s apartment and accompanying her is a melancholic piano motif, originally used in Ingmar Bergman’s 1971 film The Touch. The shifts and tides in the recurring piece not only mark Sandra’s consistent presence in all the difficult situations she will have to navigate through, but also single her out as the emotional epicenter without any other means of expression. Her life as a single widowed mother is spun between two men, both of which are not quite present. While her father, Georg, (Pascal Greggory) is battling a neurodegenerative disease which gradually strips him out of his past as a philosophy professor, she meets an old friend Clément (Melvil Poupaud) who eventually becomes her lover, even though he’s married with a child the same age as Sandra’s own daughter Linn.
One Fine Morning thrives in exploring life’s opposite pulls and this is not surprising for a filmmaker who has made a staple out of exploring the labyrinth of sentiments within each of her protagonists. Sandra is not, however, easily defined as a woman ‘in between’ two men. Seydoux crafts a very relatable character, tacit but gentle nonetheless, a woman for whom the term ‘emotionally complex’ would be nothing short of an insult. Her gestural affection captured in multiple scenes with her daughter, father, or lover testifies to a depth of understanding which goes beyond words. Without ever justifying her actions (nor does she need to), Sandra explores a terrain of guilt and heartbreak to find a path towards self-assertion.
As the minutiae of interior suffering rarely show on the surface, most of the film is haunted by an absence to come, namely, Georg’s nearing death. But the film feels like anything but a requiem. People live on as piles of books change owners. Hansen-Løve’s directorial approach has proved itself to be one of melancholic enchantment where objects often find themselves imbued with mnemonic value.
In One Fine Morning, Georg’s philosophy books are the subject of diligent dispersal, being delicately passed to his devoted students, and then rearranged in new locations with the help of none other than Sandra and Linn themselves. There is an almost ritualistic way the camera returns to the books in their various settings, not only as markers of the past but as a repository of private secrets. As they are handled and passed on, we get a glimpse of a cover or two, but no prolonged attention as a paced pan graces a single shelf right to left: cover textures, colors, titles hint at their own past lives. Georg’s library and his personality may have become synonymous in a self-explanatory way in line with the subplot of his illness, but the subtle fascination which frames it, in fact, has its own predecessor earlier in the film.
Soon after Clément and Sandra cross paths at their children’s school, he invites her over to his workplace where he promises to show her ‘the most beautiful man-made machine.’ A slow upwards tilt reveals an intricate device made out of metal tubes and connectors forming a maze-like structure which towers over the viewer as majestically as the philosopher’s bookshelf will later on. Clément may not be a man of the humanities (unlike most of Hansen Løve’s male characters) but his insistence that he is a cosmo-chemist instead of an astrophysicist paints him more metaphysical than a straightforward scientist would have it. The two men could not be more different, but Sandra’s affectionate gaze becomes their common denominator, expanding the emotional world of the film even further.
It’s the complicated nature of relationships which sits at the heart of any humanistic cinema, but Hansen-Løve’s interest in all their rawness, in the spiky bits, the slippages left unexplored. It’s as if she prefers pointing to a wound, instead of dressing it. But as any true humanist would tell you, it is necessary to learn how to live with the scars.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.