Wednesday 19 April 2023

Found in translation: "One Fine Morning"

After several years on her travels (2018's Maya, 2021's Bergman Island), Mia Hansen-Løve comes home. One Fine Morning, the French writer-director's eighth feature, represents such a continuation of what's come before that it could just as well be titled Child of My Father: it's another featherlight drama, apparently with autobiographical elements, and unfolding around the same airy, bright Paris the movies have been selling us on (and Denis Lenoir has been shooting) since the year dot. What's new is that 
Hansen-Løve returns to these boulevards with a greater sense of responsibility; she's reached that age where she's had to think about the provision of care for ailing parents, even as she's still trying to figure out how to live a life for herself. OFM takes its cue from an early, incidental encounter with its protagonist's grandmother, whose first line is a sighed "it's quite difficult, living". She's not wrong.

So it is we're introduced to a deglammed Léa Seydoux as Sandra, a freelance translator whose professor father Georg (Pascal Greggory) has reached such an advanced state of degeneration that, as we find him, he can barely think to unlock the door of the apartment he's in. Yet as that door remains closed, and Sandra does her best to meet the mounting family obligations, another suddenly opens, in the form of a declaration of love from married friend Clément (Melvil Poupaud). The job of the translator, we soon intuit from scenes of Sandra at work, is to find a balance, to come up with new words for old that possess a comparable meaning and weight. Hansen-Løve sets herself the task of translating personal experience into images, and of putting something of that balance up on the screen: to set the old man's slow decline against the new guy's renewing passion, and equally to get the measure of Sandra, the single mother in the middle, trying to interpret developments as best she can.

Much of that achievement lies in the writing, and the way Hansen-Løve finds seesaw-like scenes that you feel could pivot either way. Sandra retreats in tears after a kindly student approaches her on the street to tell her how fond she is of our girl's father; conversely, that dread drive to visit a hospitalised loved one is enlivened by tales from Sandra's feisty mother Françoise (Nicole Garcia), late-life recruit to eco-activism. (Note how the film never dwells on her separation from Georg: the world turns, things change, people move on.) One of the things Hansen-Løve is very good at conveying is a sense life doesn't stop in times of crisis: in her films, as in reality, it carries on to the left and right of her characters, in ways both welcome and painful. Here, she's especially sharp on how her two main storylines connect emotionally. One of the reasons Sandra is attracted to Clément, an astrophysicist (or, as he insists, "cosmo-chemist") who spends his days surrounded by rocks, is the opportunity he provides for escape, to think and talk about something more vast and cosmic than she has to in the role of dutiful daughter. (He has only to show her his spectrometer to seal the deal.) But even he has other things going on. Rather than some great release of unresolved sexual tension, the first time the lovers sleep together is a curiously brisk sequence, brief respite before Clément returns to his wife and Sandra to the hospital, and a befuddled father upsetting himself further in trying to describe his own symptoms. He can't find the words; she, therefore, is helpless; the mood swings again.

Some way into One Fine Morning, you realise how much of its gently swaying effect is rooted in language: it may be around the time Sandra, in the grip of reignited lust, rearranges her Scrabble hand to spell out the phrase "SEX BITE". (Or as the subtitler helpfully translates: "SEX COCK".) Hansen-Løve knows she can always juxtapose the heavier medical shit with the levity of her lovers' pillow talk, or with the lighter medical talk prompted when Sandra's daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) assumes a limp; Sandra and Clément broach the subject of euthanasia in jest during a leisurely stroll after a nice meal in a bistro. It's good for the actors, who - not unlike translators themselves - have to stay focused yet flexible, to recalibrate, scene by scene and line by line, so as to pull off the exact tonal fluctuation their director requires. It's very good for Seydoux, for once neither a muse nor a fantasy figure, getting to play something closer to a lived-in, worn-out human being. Sandra herself is a phrase in translation: introduced as her father's daughter, independent but not autonomous, she eventually emerges as a parent in her own right, matured by her experiences, and goes from carer to being cared for in the film's most affecting passages. One Fine Morning can't match Father of My Children's freshness or the euphoric highs of Eden - it's more measured than those, tempered by life - but it has wisdom on its side, and an optimism, enshrined in the title, which never once seems phoney or forced. If it bears out any more specific worldview, it's that life has a way of handing us not just a problem, but the solution(s) to that problem. The student who unwittingly provoked such upset in Sandra will eventually provide consoling shelter for the professor's books; the astrophysicist meets the daughter's insatiable curiosity regarding interplanetary matters. Whatever it takes to shoulder the weight of this world.

One Fine Morning is now playing in selected cinemas.

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