Portraits of modern life

Mia Hansen-Løve on Léa Seydoux, Pascal Greggory, Kafka, ghosts and One Fine Morning

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Léa Seydoux stars with Melvil Poupaud, Pascal Greggory, and Camille Leban Martins in Mia Hansen-Løve’s spectacular One Fine Morning (Un Beau Matin)
Léa Seydoux stars with Melvil Poupaud, Pascal Greggory, and Camille Leban Martins in Mia Hansen-Løve’s spectacular One Fine Morning (Un Beau Matin) Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Mia Hansen-Løve once again turns the intimately personal into universally understood struggles and joys in her spectacular One Fine Morning (Un Beau Matin). Well-chosen costumes by Judith de Luze (Arnaud Desplechin’s Brother And Sister, which also stars Melvil Poupaud), detailed sets (production design by Mila Preli), and carefully selected locations in and around Paris (plus a trip to Normandy for a Second World War Veteran’s celebration) with all the in-between places in focus (cinematography by Denis Lenoir of Mia’s Bergman Island, Things To Come, and Olivier Assayas’s series Irma Vep, music by Thurston Moore), give us the picture of full lives.

Mia Hansen-Løve with Anne-Katrin Titze: “Léa Seydoux, I always had her in mind for the role.”
Mia Hansen-Løve with Anne-Katrin Titze: “Léa Seydoux, I always had her in mind for the role.”

Hansen-Løve brings us into the world of Sandra (Léa Seydoux), mother of 8-year-old Linn (Camille Leban Martins) and a widow, who works as a translator/interpreter. Her father Georg (Pascal Greggory, stupendously real) has been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease called Benson’s Syndrome. Sandra’s mother (Nicole Garcia, adding lightness and humour to the most dire situations), although long divorced from Georg, is pulled into the mix when it comes to the difficult task of finding a care home for him and cleaning out his apartment which is filled with books. “His library is more him than the person at the nursing home,” explains Sandra at one point. The “bodily envelope” has become in a way a spectre.

Meanwhile, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), an old friend, by chance reenters Sandra’s life. He is married, has a son, and is a cosmo chemist (not to be mistaken with an astrophysicist, as he insists), whose travels send him all over the globe. His account of meeting a Sea Leopard in the Antarctic during an expedition give Sandra a nightmare, a clear sign that a complicated love story has already begun.

One Fine Morning is essentially about what it means to live in the here and now. On the side you can pick up a new interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, discover one of the last great German silent movies, get an original gift idea for a toy (a cardboard house with solar energy roof), find out that Santa’s reindeer like pickles, and be reminded that ultimately love will remain.

From Paris, a week before the first nominations of the 48th César Awards are announced, Mia Hansen-Løve joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on One Fine Morning (the title’s complex meaning reveals itself late in the film).

Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her father Georg (Pascal Greggory)
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her father Georg (Pascal Greggory) Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Mia, good to see you again. We spoke when you were in New York for Maya.

Mia Hansen-Løve: Oh wow, okay!

AKT: Quite a while ago. We talked about Bergman Island being in preparation, the haunting of cinema, and hostage situations. In a way the father’s illness in this film is a kind of hostage taking. Am I completely off?

MHL: I don’t know if I would put it this way, but I guess all my films have connections with one another. I remember when I was writing One Fine Morning, I would see correspondences, links, sometimes with Things To Come because I saw Things To Come as a portrait of my mother and this one is a portrait, indirect portrait of my father. I would sometimes see links with my first feature because it’s a father and daughter story. But actually I think all my films they are all equally personal and even though some look more autobiographical than others in the end I think they are all interconnected.

AKT: Pascal Greggory’s performance is absolutely spectacular. I spoke with Florian Zeller last week about The Son and he mentioned that after he made The Father people came up to him and asked: “how is Anthony Hopkins doing?” Because he played a man with dementia. I felt the same in this case. Of course I know he is just a fantastic actor but I did feel the urge to ask you how is Pascal Greggory doing!

Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with Clément (Melvil Poupaud)
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with Clément (Melvil Poupaud) Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MHL: He is fine! You would see him on a bike. He uses the bike to go from one place to the opposite end in Paris. He’s very sportive. It’s really like he’s the complete opposite of the character, I can tell you.

AKT: I believe that. How did you work with him on the performance?

MHL: I feel extremely grateful to Pascal that he was so humble and so open in his way of dealing with the difficulties of that part. I was worried when I offered him the part that he would decline and refuse to do it. Some actors would be afraid of seeing themselves in this position but it was the opposite, he was excited actually by the part because he said to me that he had never played anything like that before.

He saw it as a challenge and he thought it was stimulating because of that. And he completely trusted me so it made my work very easy because there was no limitation in himself, there was no narcissism in any way. I mean, he wasn’t looking at himself while he was acting, he was just being the part. I had recorded my father. I had a lot of recordings of my father when he was sick. I didn’t film him, but I had his voice, so I had Pascal listen a bit to that, just a few minutes, but I think it gave him a very precise sense of who my father was and how the illness affected him and the kind of sensibility that he had. I think it moved him actually a lot to hear that.

Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) and Clément (Melvil Poupaud)
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) and Clément (Melvil Poupaud) Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

He kind of incorporated the character; he really made the character his in a very interior way. So actually to my surprise it was quite easy on the set because he had such an inner and right sense of who the character was and how he would speak and he would never overplay. So it was as if he had picked the right thread and he just needed to follow the thread.

AKT: That explains it perfectly. It’s so detailed a portrayal and what astonished me the most is the humour you managed to get into the film, into these very serious situations. We encounter it sometimes in the worst moments. For example when they ask him, does he agree to leave the apartment and he has this sentence; “I find the word a bit abusive.” To agree! And there is Nicole Garcia’s response, laughing at that. It’s fantastic!

MHL: Thank you! I think when we go through very difficult moments in life - most of the time we need humour and humour is there sometimes. We need it and it actually helps. I mean, when somebody has a sense of humour in a tragic situation it helps coping with it. So it made sense for me to incorporate it because it was truthful to my experience of those situations. But in the case of Georg I think his sense of humour moves me a lot because it is an expression of his elegance and of his shyness.

Mia Hansen-Løve on Léa Seydoux as Sandra: “I realize really now that there are all these moments where you see her in public transport …”
Mia Hansen-Løve on Léa Seydoux as Sandra: “I realize really now that there are all these moments where you see her in public transport …” Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It is a way of pretending that it is alright and he doesn’t want to be a burden for the others. He never complains actually. So his humour is little notes of lightness in some moments that don’t feel light at all. They touch me a lot because what they really express is attention for the others and his dignity, that he doesn’t want to complain about a situation although it’s tragic.

AKT: Your film also gave me a new reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I never connected the turning into an insect with illness and aging before. References in your films are always a path, a string that you give us. The fact that your protagonist is a translator of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, for example - it leads us to follow our own threads.

MHL: The Kafka really makes sense but it’s not something that comes from me. This part you are mentioning is a part on the notebooks in the film. These are the actual notebooks of my father. So he made this comparison between what he was going through and the Metamorphosis of Kafka. And it’s something I read after he was dead. After he died, I received some of his little notebooks that he had.

He didn’t write a lot, but he did write these lines that I used in the film. That includes the one where he compares himself. The ironic thing is that the character in Metamorphosis, his name is Gregor Samsa. It’s a similar name in my film and it wasn’t on purpose! It was totally unconscious I picked the name Georg for the character. It was at the end of the process of writing that I realized it’s a similar name as in Kafka’s book. But it moved me a lot when I read that in the notebooks. Kafka was a very iconic writer for my father, one of his favorites. My father was born in Vienna and grew up there in this environment of German literature, especially Austrian literature.

Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her father Georg (Pascal Greggory) going for a walk
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her father Georg (Pascal Greggory) going for a walk Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: I saw some Thomas Bernhard books on the shelves.

MHL: Yes, but Kafka was really one of his dearest writers and that book, Metamorphosis, has been with him, close to him throughout his life. Of course he probably never thought that one day he would compare himself to Gregor Samsa because of his illness. And the idea that finally the book for him became a reference to his own situation is something that really is overwhelming to me.

AKT: Léa Seydoux has to handle a lot in this film. There’s a lot going on, which is something I very much appreciated. It’s a full life. There are so many films that focus on a character’s professional life, or life in crime, or the private love story, and everything else feels like filler and background. In real life we constantly every day deal with everything and fulfil all these roles. There she is in her job as a translator, at the same time dealing with her father, dealing with this new man, and dealing with her daughter. The juggling was very well portrayed. Did you always know you wanted Léa in this role?

MHL: Léa Seydoux, I always had her in mind for the role. I had been admiring her for a long time but I just never happened to have a part that made sense to me. I had never met her before but I couldn’t help writing the part with her in mind, thinking of the kind of charisma and magnificence but also the simplicity she could bring to the part. And the raw emotion, because it’s something I noticed about her presence on screen. I was also interested in bringing her back to earth in a way, bringing her back to everyday life.

Mia Hansen-Løve on the relationship between Sandra (Léa Seydoux) and Georg (Pascal Greggory): “I would sometimes see links with my first feature [All Is Forgiven] because it’s a father and daughter story.”
Mia Hansen-Løve on the relationship between Sandra (Léa Seydoux) and Georg (Pascal Greggory): “I would sometimes see links with my first feature [All Is Forgiven] because it’s a father and daughter story.” Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: Yes, she is not very glamorous in your film.

MHL: She’s great in all those films where she’s so sophisticated and glamorous and I thought it was maybe as interesting for her as it was for me to see her in a part where she was closer to us in a way. I thought it would not take away her mystery, the opposite maybe, that it would bring us even closer to the kind of mystery that she incarnates. Because I find that a lot of mystery about her has to do with the restraint, in that she is kind of shy. She’s not one of those actors who give you everything, where everything is up front, she’s much more restrained and it’s something I really love about her.

But you’re right, in the film we see her in very different kinds of situations. The film is about that - this woman juggling, as you said, all those different roles she has to be. I think it’s the case of many women of that age. It has to do with where she is in her life. Characters of women are not the same in my films when they are 15 or 20 years old. Here it’s more like a 35-year old woman, she has a dad who is very sick, she has a daughter, she’s alone, she needs to work to make money. Maybe she loves her work too. It really tells you how we live in the modern world now. You are a woman and you work and you have a child and taking care of aging parents when they get sick. It’s a very banal situation but I think it’s universal too. A lot of people face this situation.

AKT: You show her in the Métro, breathing in-between. You give us breathing room as well through these scenes.

Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins)
Sandra (Léa Seydoux) with her daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) Photo: Carole Bethuel / Les Films Pelléas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MHL: It’s funny because that wasn’t really intentional. I realize really now that there are all these moments where you see her in public transport, you know, in the bus, in the Métro or walking and for me it’s just natural because I’m a city girl and I spend so much time there. I realized today, for instance, before doing this interview, I walked and I looked on my phone - I had walked 14 kilometres - it’s a lot. I mean when you are in Paris if you don’t have a car like in my case, you spend so much time in the Métro, in the bus or walking - it’s crazy.

AKT: Same in New York.

MHL: It’s just part of life. Cinematographically speaking, I’m interested in showing that because it shows the modern way of life and it also shows the presence of these characters. I always feel these moments of silence where I see them walking, just by the way they walk, the way they are dressed, the rhythm of their walk, how they look and the silence - I think it tells you something about who they are and to me it was always a part of the portrait of those characters.

AKT: Absolutely. I have one question about Brigitte Helm and The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, You chose this clip from the 1929 film. There is a connection to suicide and the clip is beautiful. It’s mysterious and somehow fits so well in your film. Can you talk about that choice?

MHL: It wasn’t so much about the film itself, although of course I chose it precisely. I saw a lot of others and I picked this one. I was interested in seeing Sandra working in a situation where it’s silent, you know?

One Fine Morning poster
One Fine Morning poster

AKT: I see.

MHL: Usually when she translates, she translates people who are talking. You have people talking and you hear the sound of the people and she is translating - it’s her voice on another voice. But what I thought was beautiful in this situation, which exists but is more unusual than others, is that there is no sound at all. People are watching a film; it’s a silent film from the 20s and these films have such an aura, you know. They put us in such a strong atmosphere that deals with ghosts basically. I think this silence and this atmosphere of ghosts - to me whenever I watch silent films I feel closer to ghosts than ever.

Cinema brings us closer to ghosts anyway but I think the silent films even more so. It’s a moment when we are hearing her father’s voice; he’s not dead but kind of dying because of his disease. This voice we’re hearing of her father, it’s almost like a voice of a ghost already. Because it’s the notebooks he is reading before he was really sick so to me he’s not that character anymore. He’s like a ghost. I think the choice of a silent film had to do with this voice of her father. To me it’s like she was surrounded by all these ghosts.

AKT: We started with ghosts on our conversation on Maya and end back on ghosts. Thank you so much. I loved your film.

MHL: Thank you so much for interviewing me again!

One Fine Morning opens in cinemas in the US on January 27.

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