Some actors relish the act of performance in delightfully showy and externalized ways. Their brio provokes our enjoyment, and while all sorts of subtle and humanizing details may come from that delight in sheer invention, the work is big. Juicy. Like a peach, picked and then devoured by Cate Blanchett and Daniel Day-Lewis.
With Léa Seydoux, one of France’s very best, it’s another story. She operates with calm precision, and with the singular, unblinking eyes of a unique screen paradox: a guarded seeker.
She’s also beautiful, but she’s too busy doing her job — listening, watching, feeling, interpreting a moment, or a flicker of emotion — to get hung up on her looks, or to confine her characters to beauty that is only skin-deep.
“One Fine Morning” brings out all these qualities in Seydoux, and writer-director Mia Hansen-Love works in strikingly similar, no-nonsense fashion. It is a story of a woman handling difficult family matters amid a discreet but soul-awakening affair with a married man.
Is this the stuff of high drama, or even melodrama? If you’ve seen any of Hansen-Love’s earlier work, including “Eden” (2014) and “Bergman Island” (2021), you’ll recall a distinct lack of emotional inflation. Her female characters, and her frequent, affecting use of events in her own life for inspiration, provide a visual and tonal steadiness that prevents overstatement, even when things are turbulent on the inside.
Seydoux plays Sandra, a Parisian who works as an interpreter. Her husband has been dead several years when “One Fine Morning” begins. Sandra and her 8-year-old daughter, Linn (Camille Leban Martins), sprint through their days, increasingly defined by what is happening to Sandra’s father, Georg. Played by Pascal Greggory, he is a retired philosophy professor whose pension, we learn, doesn’t cover much in the way of full-time care expenses. (What is this, America? Oh, right, forgot about the “pension” part. It’s France, all right.)
Georg has been hit with the neurodegenerative illness known as Benson’s syndrome. His sight is failing; his cognitive and memory capacity is radically diminished. Sandra works as best she can with her activist mother (Nicole Garcia) and the rest of their family to answer the questions of where Georg will live, and with what sort of autonomy.
NO EASY RESOLUTIONS
These are questions to resolve, but there is no clear resolution, certainly not emotionally, when it comes to a parent who is not who he was. “Brace yourself,” says Sandra’s mother. This next part, she says, “is no fun.”
Amid this scenario, Sandra runs into an old friend: Clément (Melvil Poupaud), a cosmochemist who travels the world searching for rocks, bits of meteorite and the like for chemical composition analysis. It sounds dull, but to Sandra, there’s an attractiveness to a job that continually takes someone far away. On the other hand, once Sandra and the unhappily married Clément (who has a son about Sandra’s daughter’s age) venture past their resistance points and fall into an affair, they don’t want much distance at all.
“One Fine Morning” proceeds at a disarming clip, though Hansen-Love has a shrewd instinct for spending a few extra beats of dialogue, or a little longer in bed, to reveal another facet of Sandra’s push/pull interior state.
It’s a cliche even to point this out, I suppose, but a typical American treatment of this character, and this story, wouldn’t settle for a humane lack of judgment — not when it’s so much easier to amp up conflict by pointing fingers and setting up straw villains. None of that here. It’s an economical and modestly scaled film filled out, with banked emotion and great finesse, by Seydoux and company.
The film’s title, we hear, comes from Georg’s never-completed autobiography, dealing in part with Sandra’s grandfather’s suicide. Death, dying, hearts in winter, the thrill of a sexual reawakening: Sandra’s life, as “One Fine Morning” delineates, makes room for it all because it must. Hers is an ordinary life, in the end, full of small, extraordinary grace notes. Thanks to both filmmaker and star, it’s a consistently screenworthy one.
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