Is love alone always enough to sustain us through difficult or painful relationships? Can love sustain in a relationship if it is not reciprocal; indeed is such a thing even love? With One Fine Morning, celebrated French director Mia Hansen-Løve presents complementary accounts of infatuation, love, and loss in a nuanced, moving study of the ways that love can sustain and consume us.
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) lives with her young daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) in their Paris apartment. On top of maintaining a career as a translator, Sandra cares for her elderly father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), who has Benson’s Syndrome – often caused by Alzheimer’s – and he is increasingly unable to look after himself. The rest of their family are around, but it is clear that she is his primary caregiver, while his ‘companion’, Leïla (Fejria Deliba) seems to flit in and out of his life at her convenience.
Meanwhile, a chance encounter with an old family friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), sparks an ill-advised love affair that provides a necessary distraction from the pain of caring for her father in addition to a refracted version of the sort of take-and-take, non-reciprocal love that has fundamentally defined her relationship with her father. Most stories about the deterioration of elderly loved ones invariably focus on how difficult they can become through their confusion. In One Fine Morning, however, the pain stems from Georg’s indefatigable affability.
With every decision about his welfare, Georg is passive, pliant and cheerful. Yet with his compliance his confusion becomes more profound: his loss is no less great for his lack of raging against the dying of the light. But the quickest cut is his apparent and complete misapprehension over Sandra: in their first scene he pointedly asks after her nameless ‘child’, and often has to be told it is she who is visiting him. The worst, however, is when he tells Sandra there are only three important people in his life. The first is Leïla, the second, himself. The third, he forgets.
These sorts of moments are typical for sufferers of dementia, but there is something in Sandra’s raw pain, expressed through a deeply-layered performance that Seydoux carries throughout the film, that speaks of a father that never truly saw his daughter. Indeed, this is a relationship of care that has never fully been reciprocal; we may well judge Sandra as she ignores Georg’s helpless calls for Leïla as he wanders the corridors of his care home, Sandra watching as the lift doors close and she leaves him to it. But this is one moment of countless others that contextualises the decisions of complex people in pain making choices we may not understand. Though perhaps it does help us to understand her ongoing affair with Clément, a walking cliché of a man perpetually promising to leave his wife, whom she welcomes time and again, yearning for the love and validation never provided by her father.
Through a subtly muted colour palette and soft lighting, Hansen-Løve has captured the ordinariness of life, but the extraordinariness of her film is in its editing. And it is through its editing that One Fine Morning’s implicit concern with memory surfaces, constructed as a series of ellipses and fractured moments, like memories edited together after the fact. Georg’s cognitive decline is tied invariably to memory loss, while Sandra’s impulsive affair with Clément is of the moment but informed by unresolved emotions of the past. At one point, Georg fearfully talks of his life being a film in which he doesn’t know the beginning or the end, later Sandra discovers a diary that Georg kept in the early stages of his disease: both incidents underline a sense of Sandra attempting to make sense out of chaos – a kind of editing of life into something coherent.
Hansen-Løve even plays with this with conspicuous cuts in scenes and occasional continuity errors (watch out for a magically-regenerating ice cream) that may well be flubs but nevertheless reinforce the film’s thesis that life’s grand narrative is constructed, often imperfectly. Even at the film’s close, little of its tension feels resolved. It’s almost as if Sandra herself has chosen to end the film at a point before she really has to face down emotional reality. The film’s final irony is that she does have a healthy, loving relationship if only she would see it, and that is between Sandra and her daughter. If there is any hope that Sandra can heal and make sense of the other relationships in her life, then examining the one healthy one she and re-editing it back in might be a good start.