Anyone who has dealt with a family member suffering dementia can recognize the disease’s telltale signs, no exposition necessary. And so it is with Mia Hansen-Løve’s (Bergman Island, Things to Come) new feature, One Fine Morning, in which Pascal Greggory, through an extraordinary combination of homework and an actor’s intuition, embodies this state of cumulative deterioration.
We first meet his character, Georg Kienzler, living by himself — barely — in a Parisian apartment. He’s been diagnosed with Benson’s syndrome, and we can tell straightaway that his sense of self-awareness and ambulation are in their waning days. His daughter, Sandra (Léa Seydoux), has come by for her routine visit. He recognizes her — both seem thankful for small mercies — but otherwise she cuts his food for him, reminds him of her own daughter’s name, and brings him back to Earth when he seems to freeze, staring off into space, his eyes glazed over.
This can be excruciating to watch. The twin erosions of physical autonomy and mental faculty are never pleasant, especially for a character as intellectually vibrant as Georg, whom we gradually learn was a philosophy professor with an enviable library and who was “obsessed [with] clarity and rigor.” Yet One Fine Morning is not Amour, Michael Haneke’s almost unbearably depressing descent into the depths of senility; nor is it Florian Zeller’s The Father, a more stylized treatment that effectively placed us inside the addled mind of Anthony Hopkins’ defiant patient.
Hansen-Løve’s film is as honest as these predecessors, but it’s also more beautiful and tender, allowing just enough optimism to peek into the proceedings, as sunbeams through window blinds.
For one thing, Georg isn’t the central character. We spend all of our time with Sandra, a widowed mother of a young child who works as a professional translator. One day, she bumps into a friend of her late spouse, Clément (Melvil Poupad), a cosmo-chemist who studies space rocks. He’s married, but their attraction is mutual, and they begin a passionate affair, for Sandra her first such rendezvous in the five years since her husband’s passing.
And so Sandra’s life becomes a divided polarity of agony and ecstasy, in which she is losing one man in her life while gaining another, neither without struggle. Clément, for all his adoration for Sandra, continually pulls the rug out from under their coupling by returning to his wife and child, only to contact Sandra some time later, lustful and apologetic.
For Georg, meanwhile, his decline is swift, as he shuffled from hospital to multiple long-term-care centers, as if searching for the best “fit” for when of course there’s no such thing as a good fit for this condition. The fellow-patients in each nursing home look increasingly vegetal.
Yet Georg’s light is never extinguished. He is eternally polite, curious, searching, even if he’s unable to pinpoint the object of his search. One nurse tears up when he is shuffled off to the next facility, praising him as a wonderful man. Another, in the film’s most profound moment, gently chides Sandra for summoning her to escort Georg to the bathroom rather than tending to her father herself. “Make the most of being together,” the nurse offers, both of them well aware of life’s finitude.
There’s an elegant irony at the heart of One Fine Morning. Sandra’s day job is to translate major events — she works in settings such as war memorials and conferences on global affairs — yet the people around her are enduring nothing if not a breakdown of communication, and there’s little she can do about it. In her father’s case, she’s struck with the same dilemma as every caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient: For how long should she try to moor him in reality, “testing” him about his surrounding stimuli? When does such an approach become pointless, even masochistic?
One Fine Morning may be the closest film to naturally arrive at an answer, and we see its evolution in what ranks among Seydoux’s very best performances, whether it’s the gradual acceptance that the father she knew isn’t returning, or the complexity of emotions — a tart cocktail of satisfaction and melancholy — that wrestles across her face when reading a text from an absent Clément. Her two worlds collide later, when telling Clément that if they’re still together, and she undergoes the same fate as her father, that he must euthanize her. The moment is shared as a joke first, until it’s not, and Sandra breaks down, the traumatic weeks and months spilling from Seydoux’s eyes.
Hansen-Løve is too smart a filmmaker to trade in false hope, and yet hope is what we can ultimately take away from her multifaceted vision of life. It’s best to leave the last words for Georg’s 98-year-old mother (sadly, I couldn’t find a credit for the actor portraying her), who appears only once in One Fine Morning but leaves an indelible impression. Unlike her son, she’s perfectly lucid, even if much of her body doesn’t work like it used to.
“It’s a bit difficult sometimes … living,” she clarifies. “Everything is in need of repair.” Yet, she adds, with the authority of a life’s credo, “Never accept pity.”
ONE FINE MORNING is now playing at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables Art Cinema. It opens March 17 at AMC Indian River 24 in Vero Beach.