In “One Fine Morning,” Sandra (Léa Seydoux) remarks that as he ages, she sees more of her father’s soul in his books than his actual self. Her father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), was recently diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, and she and her family are struggling with the reality of taking care of him as he loses more and more control over his faculties. Sandra makes this remark while cleaning out Georg’s apartment, the seemingly thousands of books he’s shared his soul with throughout the years strewn about the room.
Sandra’s life is defined by caretaking. She lives in Paris, a single mother to an 8-year-old named Linn (Camille Leban Martins), and she takes care of her sick father. When he becomes too sick to live on his own, she and her family begin looking for a suitable nursing home, and she runs into an old married friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud). The two embark on an affair that puts aging into perspective, and – somehow – sparks Sandra back to life.
Sandra’s remark – that as we grow more brittle, our true selves become entombed in the things we loved and cared for – is one of the more poignant observations in writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film, which follows a woman in stasis, surrounded on all sides by an ever-changing world, but unable to move herself. While a slight film, “One Fine Morning” offers a frank look at the casual cruelty with which we treat the elderly. But the counterpoint to that commentary on aging – a rather lackluster romance – makes it difficult to feel conflicted about the tension between putting care into your own life or the lives of others.
Hansen-Løve threads the needle of the line between movement and stasis quite smartly, particularly in the way the film shows the similarities in how the system treats the elderly and how we ultimately treat them ourselves. As Georg becomes more frail and more dependent on the help of others – and subsequently, more static himself – Sandra’s commitment to helping him begins to wane, and she begins to move toward the other aspects of her life more fully. When we first see the two together in his apartment, walls around him swimming with books and personality, he may have trouble with some things physically, but he mostly seems to be present. Sandra gamely helps him eat, and even helps him go to the restroom, without any complaints. Later, in the barren, blank-walled hospital, removed of any of the things that made Georg himself, Sandra asks a nurse to help him use the restroom. When the nurse asks her why she’s so reluctant to help her father herself, Sandra says it makes her uncomfortable. While this may or may not be true, we’ve seen her fight through that discomfort before – when her father was more present in his physical body and less in his books.
Sandra is caught between two extremes of life, between caring for her ailing father and raising her daughter. In some scenes where Sandra is helping Georg, the camera lingers on Linn staring almost blankly at her grandfather – young watching old in crisis, unable to fathom that their own future could ever look similar. Sandra sits in the middle, around an age where some might say we should be flirty and thriving. But in the wake of how much care her father needs and the fact that her husband passed away some years ago, she treats her romantic life as over. When she muses over this idea with Clément, he tells her to “stop talking like an old lady.”
There’s real nuance in how Hansen-Løve uses the exhilaration of a new love against a background of disregard for life, how Sandra becomes less invested in her father as she becomes more wrapped up in the idea of her own life breaking out of a standstill. But while the running contradiction provides a compelling throughline, the romance we’re supposed to believe breaks through to Sandra is so colorless and tame as to be almost unbelievable. When Sandra and Clément meet, we know immediately that they will fall into bed together – not because there’s any real spark between them, but because we know the conventions of moviemaking. Beyond the idea that the plot of the film necessitates that they will end up together, it’s hard to understand why either of them – particularly Sandra – likes the other.
As Clément, Poupaud gives a slightly shifty performance. He talks out of the side of his mouth, and his persona itself is so slight, so muted, that you never quite believe anything he says. Paired up against Seydoux’s very open performance, he comes across as prickly. For sometime, that works. The relationship itself begins as a different sort of rut for Sandra – a continuous loop of Clément promising that he will leave his wife and son, not following through on that promise, leaving Sandra, and then coming back. It’s more realistic than the fully romantic portions of their relationship, and yet that’s where Hansen-Løve chooses to leave us. She is attempting to capture the dichotomy that comes when we decide to be selfish, to not let our responsibilities overwhelm us and live a little. While that can be freeing, it can also be cruel. But is this romance – this whirlwind of dishonesty and lack of chemistry – worth the selfishness?
One scene in “One Fine Morning” captures this problem quite well. Sandra and Clément take Linn to visit Georg in his new nursing home, joining him for a singing activity with the other residents. Linn finds the experience delightful – too young to recognize the melancholy with which it’s framed. There’s something dehumanizing about watching a bunch of people forced to participate in something when they have no say in the matter, a characteristic Greggory captures with such empathy in his performance. “Agree … I find the word a bit abusive,” he tells his family and doctors in a moment of lucidity when he’s asked to go into the hospital.
Sandra, unable to take it anymore, begins to break down. But unlike her father and the other residents, she has the ability to ignore all of this, which she takes full advantage of. She leaves, Clément and Linn by her side. But it’s unclear if the future she’s walking towards is worth the pain.