With her tender feature One Fine Morning, Mia Hansen-Løve takes a personal look at grief and growth, and the way happiness finds moments to burst through the cracks. Savina Petkova sifts through that experience and the cinema of the French filmmaker.
The films of Mia Hansen-Løve can be almost too elusive to describe. Maybe there can only be the attempt to reconstruct her idiosyncratic film language, one of emotional trajectories that always seem to begin, but never end. Some beginnings for her protagonists take more conventional forms, like a long-awaited reunion between father and daughter (All Is Forgiven), while others look like endings—a break-up (Goodbye First Love), a divorce (Things to Come), suicidal tendencies (Father of My Children). But in all cases, each character’s psychic geography is ever-expanding as they are confronted with their own depths – often unexpectedly so.
One Fine Morning is Hansen-Løve’s eighth feature and its protagonist is also searching, yearning, and actually, living. Sandra (Léa Seydoux) has many roles: to society, she is a widow; to her clients, she is one of the best simultaneous translators they can get; she is also a single mother to her daughter Linn, and a daughter to both of her divorced parents. But while her mother Françoise (Nicole Garcia) is independent enough to devote her free time to anti-Macron political activism, her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), previously a professor of philosophy, is now debilitated by a fatal neurodegenerative disease. As fate would have it, the increasing care for Sandra’s father coincides with a rekindling of an old flame. She starts an affair with the charming astrophysicist Clément (Melvil Poupaud) whose marital troubles don’t cancel out the undisclosed passion the two share. With this coincidence, One Fine Morning presents an ethical antinomy: how can loss and happiness coexist within the same person at the same time?
Sandra darts between work, family, and her secret relationship with only a few on-screen moments of solitude. We get to know her as she is with everyone else—patient, caring, giving—in medium shots and close-ups with at least one other person. She is both generous to and vulnerable in front of family, friends, and colleagues, all the while experiencing anticipatory grief in the wake of her father’s disintegrating health. Even if the film never addresses her attitude towards death in an explicit way, there are two key features which can help us read Sandra’s condition as a process through grief and mourning.
The film’s beginning is surprisingly optimistic—love can blossom while death is looming—but one cannot help but anticipate more of a tragic ending. In her book “The Year of Magical Thinking”, Joan Didion describes a certain continuity between death and mourning. She writes: “Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened.” With time passing in One Fine Morning, character progression gives way to grief showing itself in quantities, rather than in the quality of her behaviour: Sandra becomes more open, the redness in her eyes persists, tears seem to flow easier, all this happens to her.
A cinema which presents life as it unfolds can be one of long takes and slow time, or it can conceal its time passing with ellipses and hard cuts. One Fine Morning moves from place to place—a playground, to an apartment, to the river Seine—rather briskly every two or three minutes. The continuum is held together by Sandra, whose interior world comes to the fore in a few particular aspects of Léa Seydoux’s subtle but sublime performance. What also makes the first Seydoux-Hansen-Løve collaboration so special—in addition to the fact that it’s long overdue—is that the film is inspired by the personal history of the director herself. But without anchoring the role in concrete resemblance or tributes, Seydoux equips her with allure and levity.
Sandra is characterised by her openness: as the connecting tissue between everyone in her life—coworkers, sister, parents, lover—she attends to them rather quietly, she leans in as they speak, casting encouraging smiles. The most uninhibited expressions of Seydoux’s strong acting game often present themselves when cinematographer Denis Lenoir films her in close-up, and from a slightly higher angle: the glint in her eyes, the slight tuck in the corners of her mouth. She smiles a pursed smile that raises her cheekbones nonetheless, letting the blue of her eyes anchor everything and everyone. More often than not, Sandra prefers to keep her gaze down, but the way she looks up is resolute: she does so with such levity that it’s easy to imagine her grief as an actual load she loses off her shoulders.
For Didion, grief is a state, but mourning is an act. Actively dealing with grief, she writes, requires attention, and the one tangible way Sandra can deal with her grief is to take care of her father’s books. At the very beginning of One Fine Morning, when Georg opens the door to his flat with Sandra’s assistance, copious amounts of books sit behind him. So many, in fact, that they frame him. Later, we get to see all corners of his small flat and the place is enshrined. All the walls are bookshelves, bookmarked copies scattered on the desk alongside medicine and ashtrays: an extended metonymy for his life, safety harbour, and his past as a philosophy professor. The film returns to this apartment many times, always in either deep-focus long shots, or close-ups, never concealing its desire to attend to the thorny relationship between the past and the present in grief, expressed through books.
Early in the film, when Sandra’s mother brings up care homes for Georg for the first time, it becomes obvious that his apartment has to be dealt with and with it, the books. To the suggestion that they can throw them away, Sandra is bewildered: “Why not burn them while you’re at it?” she snaps in one of few instances of anger. Later, when she meets an old student of her father’s in the street, she decides on a new home for his collection, and importantly, Hansen-Løve shows every step of this process: the packing, the changeover, the unpacking and rearranging in a new place. The latter scene in particular involves another house, another family, another room of books to fill. And with the gentle pans of Lenoir’s camera, we linger on the books’ spines as they settle in their new home. A familiar set-up of the frame welcomes the library as a main character for a little while—slightly higher angle, holding close-ups, a panning movement to almost brush against their surfaces—the visual language reserved for Sandra’s ineffable grief, which, once diligently attended to, can become mourning.
In a brief but touching exchange, Sandra explains to Linn that her grandfather’s books are more a reflection of him than his body at the moment; even more, they are his soul. These words are spoken with firm belief and undisclosed optimism, fitting for a daughter of a bibliophile. Even if Sandra, a simultaneous translator, deals with words as objects on a daily basis, they flow through her quickly and leave a trace as material as her voice. In her father’s books, though, words are safe. It is the kind of interplay between tangible and intangible emotional states that make Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema hard to describe, without resorting to a “je ne sais quoi” cliché. That very act of not-knowing is central to the emotional nourishment One Fine Morning provides. The only reason that it cannot teach us how to grieve or how to mourn is that nobody can.
One Fine Morning is out in UK cinemas via MUBI now.
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