“One Fine Morning” sounds an innocuous title for a grownup relationship drama — destined, perhaps, to be confused on streaming menus with the George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer romcom “One Fine Day” — and in a sense, the mellow, melancholic cinema of French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve is its own kind of comfort viewing. But as with many facets of her filmmaking, there’s a smarter, sadder, more literary undertow to the title’s sunny simplicity. “Un beau matin” in French, it’s lifted from a haunting poem by poetic realist Jacques Prévert, which describes in plain imagery the conflict of facing absence in your life, all while pretending there’s literally nothing there.
Suffice it to say, then, that Hansen-Løve’s latest is not a romantic comedy, except in the interludes when it is. At no cost to its calm, loping pace, “One Fine Morning” is about many things at once, in the way that every day of the everyday always is: Separate personal crises alternately surge and recede over the course of a year, given equal prominence in the script’s loose one-day-at-a-time structure. After 2018’s quasi-spiritual self-help story “Maya” and last year’s cinephile-centered film-within-a-film “Bergman Island” — both shot in English, both more stilted and artificial than her best work — the new film returns the filmmaker to her (bitter)sweet spot, rooting her not just back in France but in fine-grained domestic reality.
It’s a welcome change of pace, too, for the ubiquitous Léa Seydoux, recently seen on screen as almost everything (Bond girl, body-horror muse, glamazonic national symbol) but an ordinary woman, and projecting a warm sense of human wear and tear that we too rarely get to see from her. Deglammed inasmuch as it’s possible to deglam the star — with minimal makeup, a short, practical hairdo and an oft-recycled wardrobe of slouchy floral dresses, she’s casually chic in the manner of someone you might plausibly know — Seydoux plays Sandra, a bright, independent, long-single mother with a freelance translating career that just about pays the rent of the teeny apartment she shares in Paris with her eight-year-old daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins).
We meet her en route to another cosy Parisian shoebox, this one belonging to her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), a former philosophy professor who has almost totally lost his sight — one consequence of the neurodegenerative disorder Benson’s syndrome, which is gradually claiming his mind and memory too. No longer able to live independently, and unable to cohabit with his partner due to her own health problems, he and his family are thus thrust into the administrative nightmare of the national care home system, barely able to secure him a room of his own amid a logistical tangle of waiting lists and exorbitant fees.
With Sandra stretched even thinner than usual, anxiously fretting over all aspects of her father’s situation — even the fate of his extensive book collection is a touchy subject — it’s an awkward time for a complicated new relationship to present itself. Life being what it is, that’s exactly what happens. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance, charming cosmochemist Clement (Melvil Poupaud) leads to a rekindled friendship, and soon more than that — though he’s married with a young son, and in no hurry to break up his family. Despite repeated efforts to end the impractical affair, the two can’t quite quit each other. For Sandra, who has been not just off the dating scene but fully celibate for several years, her reawakened need for intimacy won’t just be switched off again.
In dramatizing these two chaotic factors in Sandra’s life, Hansen-Løve is at pains to avoid tidy, swelling arcs and grand narrative collisions. Instead, “One Fine Morning” accrues subtle power through repetition, as characters put themselves through the same banal ordeals again and again hoping for different outcomes: As the increasingly disoriented Georg is shuffled from one unsuitable facility to another, losing his bearings a little more each time, Sandra and Clement repeatedly attempt to forge new romance without disrupting the status quo. In both cases, the concept of home — not just a place to live, but the companions and care that anchor life itself — is held as precious and elusive.
Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking, meanwhile, here feels as comfortingly lived-in as a hand-me-down cardigan, from the soft ecru textures of Denis Lenoir’s 35mm lensing to Marion Monnier’s relaxed, sociable editing to the director’s usual musical patchwork of favorites spanning Schubert, Dinah Washington and the plaintive folk balladry of Bill Fay. Few would accuse the director of pushing herself in “One Fine Morning,” but there’s much to be said for cinema that feels this at ease — at home, even — with itself.
In one of the film’s many wry scenes of mother-daughter sparring, Sandra takes Linn to the movies, sitting bemused through a kids’ fantasy blockbuster that a breathless Linn afterwards declares “amazing.” To her consternation, her mother is less enthusiastic: “The story was fine,” Sandra sighs, “but the images and sound were very aggressive.” “One Fine Morning,” like most of Hansen-Løve’s oeuvre, is safe from any such charges, but there can be something cutting in its gentleness too: It knows the fragility of quiet, which is sometimes the sound of inner peace, and sometimes, per that Prévert poem, the echoing unrest of an empty space.