Possessing a familiar French charm, Mia Hansen-Løve’s tender Parisian drama, One Fine Morning (Un beau matin) is an inoffensive and modest pleasure. The story, more plot-driven than narrative, centres on the hectic life of Sandra (Léa Seydoux), a young, widowed mother who works as a translator while caring for her daughter and her elderly father. She appears to live for others, and when a passionate spark is ignited with Clément (Pascal Greggory), a friend in an unhappy marriage, she enters into a discreet affair.
This familiarity is a specific sense of feeling, a unique creative characteristic of the French sensibility. The way in which the director juxtaposes superficial lightness with a thematic weight, the way she infuses her characters, dialogue, and themes with a philosophical and poetic tilt, recalls a specific feeling conveyed by directors such as Eric Rohmer and Patrice Leconte. I’m not suggesting this characteristic or sensibility can be easily defined; instead, it’s more of an abstract presence. Hansen-Løve is a quintessential French director, an agent of French tradition versus the Americanisation of French culture.
Running through One Fine Morning are recurring themes the director has previously explored. Sandra’s loving devotion to her father complements the relationship between a father and his daughter, reuniting a decade after his addiction broke up the family in her 2007 feature debut, All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné).
Meanwhile, Sandra and Clément’s affair echoes her second feature, 2011’s Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse. It’s a story about a young woman who embraces a passionate love affair when she reunites with her former lover. Then there’s the adulterous husband in 2016’s Things to Come (L’avenir), who leaves his wife for another woman, coinciding with her mother’s death and professional disappointment. The need to reinvent herself connects her with Sandra, whose affair with Clément is an act of rediscovery of love and lust. It also echoes the journalist in the director’s Maya (from 2018), who is released from captivity in Syria and returns to his native Goa in search of a new beginning.
Hansen-Løve constructs One Fine Morning around the concept of beginnings and endings. While Sandra and Clément’s relationship as friends turned lovers is only beginning, her relationship with her intellectual father, a former philosophy professor, is in its twilight. The morning sun may be rising in her life, but it is also setting.
Sandra’s father has acquired a vast library over his lifetime, and now in a care home, his ex-wife and daughters must sell his apartment and decide what to do with his books. It’s a bone of contention between Sandra and her mother because she has a sentimental attachment to her father’s collection. She tells her mother, “I feel closer to my father with his books than with him.” When asked why, she says, “His library is more him than the person at the nursing home. There, it’s his bodily envelope. Here, his soul.” Her mother still cannot understand because he didn’t write the books. Sandra explains, “Yes, but he chose them, and through these books, his personality expresses itself. Each book is a touch of colour. All together, they form his portrait.”
Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning is aware of the complicated nature of intimacy and identity. Think about coveted religious relics or the high prices sporting memorabilia can fetch at auction. One Fine Morning reflects on our sentimental nature and how we attach meaning and connection to the physical. Sandra perceives her father as a man of ideas as much as she does flesh and blood. It’s not unreasonable, nor sentimental, that his books would hold his spiritual essence because they contain ideas that helped to shape him into the intellectual giant she knew.
This attachment to the things Sandra’s father left behind is an example of the director’s poetic and philosophical sensibility, which is not superfluous, but enriching. Her approach brings not only thoughtfulness to her characters but permits a deeper reading into her characters and the meaning of their behaviour. One idea the director explores is how relationships must join the world.
“Making love, eating, sleeping is enough,” Sandra tells Clément. He replies, “Not for me. If we never leave the bed, I’ll get bored.” They’ve remained hidden from the world because he’s not ready to hurt his wife and son, and maybe Sandra is driven by sharing something with Clément that’s her own thing. So much of her life is devoted to others. Or is it that the secret affair satisfies her introverted nature? Is she like a story in a closed book on the shelf – the book is seen, but the story remains hidden?
Shot by cinematographer Denis Lenoir and edited by Marion Monnier, One Fine Morning is conceived through Hansen-Løve’s female point-of-view. Is there anything we should read into how Seydoux’s body is presented and made vulnerable compared to Pascal Greggory’s? In one scene, the couple is lying side-by-side on the bed, with her bare back to us; Seydoux’s naked rear form is exposed, presented as a focal point, framed like a painting, while Greggory’s body is mostly hidden from our view.
They lie in post-coital conversation, expressing ideas about not having the right to assume something more than friendship, ulterior motives, and unspoken desires. Sandra’s poetic words throughout One Fine Morning add to her exposure – laying bare her soul and body. Yet is Hansen-Løve’s female point-of-view still infected by a patriarchal tradition?
Storytelling is inherently intrusive, and we’re essentially intruding upon Sandra’s space by invite of the director. For this reason, One Fine Morning can feel claustrophobic, and like the story, its audience is caught in Sandra’s shadow. However, the poetic ideas of her dialogue create a feeling that we belong in her space, and we are thus liberated from the impression that we’re traditional voyeurs.
One Fine Morning is a film that should be quietly contemplated and felt. One’s appreciation can be verbally expressed, but the story and character communicate with us by passing into our emotional mind. We may carry the film’s ideas with us, but One Fine Morning‘s pleasure is the intimate connection we share with Sandra, whose presence is that of a gentle and seductive poet, albeit with a harsher nature, who quietly yearns to be awoken. Looking back to One Fine Morning is like remembering the time you spent with someone who has left a lasting impression.
Hansen-Løve is driven by a humanist desire to critique human nature. In a story that takes place during a brief period in Sandra’s life, the choice of film title is perfect. One Fine Morning is an extended morning that promises a day or her whole future, but will it be what Sandra wants or hopes for? The director deserves appreciation for this artful dive into such a difficult subject because a happy ending will feel sentimentally cliché, but a sad ending will feel like a forceful attempt to avoid it.
One Fine Morning played at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2022, followed by a theatrical release from Mubi in the UK and Ireland on 14 April 2023. It is streaming exclusively on Mubi from 16 June 2023.