There’s a fine line between sympathy and pity. It can’t always be measured by anything definable, but when you experience compassion verging into condescension, you know the difference. Mia Hansen-Løve is a filmmaker who certainly knows that difference and has spent her career maintaining a place on the side of compassion. The French filmmaker tends to construct films about women navigating familial and/or romantic relationships. In her stories, key dramatic moments can be turbulent life-changing events or the bittersweet truths of everyday life. What has consistently endeared her films to viewers is that she always finds compassion for her characters, but she never looks down on them. In her latest, One Fine Morning, examining pity but not giving into it is the key topic at hand.
The film follows Lea Seydoux‘s Sandra, a Parisian single mother tasked with assisting her father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), as his health declines. A former philosophy professor, Georg has been diagnosed with Benson’s syndrome, a disease similar to Alzheimer’s. Sandra and the rest of the family try to keep Georg comfortable and cared for, but with him shuffling between public and private care facilities, it can be difficult to figure out what is actually best for him.
Though Sandra is implored by her own grandmother during a visit to always resist pitying others, this principle is strained by her father’s circumstances. There’s a clear amount of familial love (even Sandra’s mother, divorced from Georg for decades, tries to help him), but as his condition worsens, Sandra struggles with retaining a sense of who her father was before.
Further complicating it all is that Sandra is caught in her own web of tangled interpersonal relationships. She has a chance encounter with Clement (Melvil Poupaud), a former friend of her late husband, and begins her own friendship with him. With her having spent the last five years alone and him in a marriage that’s lost its spark, it doesn’t take long for the platonic relationship to progress to something more. Though Sandra insists what they have is not just a simple fling, that is how it initially presents. The tension comes from Clement teetering between his new passionate affair and the commitment he made to his wife, not to mention the complication of having a child at home.
It’s their relationship that, unfortunately, sucks the air out of what is otherwise a compelling and thoughtful drama. The connection between Sandra and Clement constantly feels torn between opposing readings of their dynamic. From the moment they meet, it seems clear that this is not the foundation of a healthy relationship. She’s single but rattled by the developments with her father and very emotionally raw. He’s married with a kid. If there was a true spark of passion between them, perhaps it would be understandable that they fall into an entanglement, but the chemistry doesn’t seem to be there. And it’s not that Hansen-Løve isn’t adept at capturing the chemistry between her characters; for proof, look no further than last year’s Bergman Island.
But of course, the relationship does not have to be a torrid, passionate affair to be compelling. While Sandra is enchanted by Clement from the start, he keeps her at a distance. He returns to his wife and then, before long, comes back to Sandra on multiple occasions. Her desperation does indeed provoke ideas around Sandra as the subject of pity, but this comes across as an afterthought, especially when contextualized in the filmmaker’s body of work.
Sandra and Clement’s dynamic, one where she is devoted to him, and he sees her as an option, was explored brilliantly in Hansen-Løve’s coming-of-age drama Goodbye First Love. In the 2011 film, it was youthful naivete that kept one half of a couple committed to the other despite the red flags. In One Fine Morning, Sandra’s fragile emotional state makes her cling to a connection, even when Clement has shown his willingness to discard her.
However, while Goodbye First Love tackled these ideas with depth, insight, and empathy, the same endeavor doesn’t happen in One Fine Morning. The fact that Sandra’s priorities are split between her family and her relationship (not to mention her child and her job) is realistic to the load that she shoulders as an adult. But it also means that there isn’t enough screentime devoted to her relationship with Clement to create an investment in the outcome of their affair. Instead, Sandra and Clement come across as the CliffsNotes version of a relationship dynamic that Hansen-Løve has already explored in a much more compelling way elsewhere.
Though the film overall may not measure up against Hansen-Løve’s best work, there is always something enriching to be found in her films. In One Fine Morning, for example, a moment to cherish revolves around a monologue from Sandra about how her father’s expansive collection of books is more him than he is at this point. While his deteriorating health has claimed his mind, his library — the books he cared for, the things that enriched him and that he, in turn, passed on to others — is what Sandra holds on to. She’s able to regard his books with a fondness that she can’t always conjure for the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking and honest detail from a filmmaker who tends to excel at exactly those qualities. To discount the value of these moments because of other faults in the film — now that would be a real pity.