By Hannah Seidlitz
Something has always struck me as misogynistic about inquisitions into the autobiographical bases of art made by women, as if art about lived experience is less valuable or less imaginative, and that the experiences of women in particular carry less intellectual weight. But there are instances where autofiction permits storytellers to forget the structural demands of narrative, a fate which befalls the French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve in her latest feature, Un beau matin, whose pat ending doesn’t suit her characters so much as her own memory. Léa Seydoux plays a widowed translator, Sandra, whose work transcends the German lectures and Normandy commemoration ceremonies she dutifully interprets. Sandra’s aging father Georg (Pascal Greggory), once a great philosophy professor, suffers from a neurodegenerative disorder that has robbed him of the cognitive dexterity on which he’d long prided himself. Sandra also translates the world for Georg, describing their surroundings when he becomes bewildered in his assisted living facility and alert to more than his basic nonverbal signals, and in turn interprets Georg for the rest of the world. In a wrenching moment of exquisite clarity for both Seydoux and Greggory, she understands that when he asks if she’ll put him to bed, what he’s really requesting is for her to help him die.
Amidst the deterioration of her father and the everyday loneliness of life with her young bereft daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins), Sandra encounters a married friend of her late husband in the park. Clément (Melvil Poupaud) is a cosmochemist who voyages to the farthest reaches of the Earth to collect and analyze dust from outer space. “We leave the world of rational beings,” he says at his research office, in an almost annoying quip of foreshadowing (perhaps he’s making a suggestion to her, just as the film is to us), as he leads Sandra into the room where they will soon begin an affair. Before Clément, her life is rote, leaden with responsibility and absent any passion, and her ambivalence toward herself and dearth of time for matters of vanity is manifest in her sartorial choices—her hair short and unstyled, she wears boxy T-shirts and pants, button-downs. After their first kiss, her outfits begin to cut more feminine silhouettes, and by the time they’ve slept together, she flirts and flounces in floral dresses. He’s awoken something in her. As she says to him after he walks her home one night, “that part” of her life had been over.
The breeziness and half-baked cerebral posturing that I’ve always found vacuous in Éric Rohmer’s work (to the chagrin of most everyone I know and respect) is echoed in nearly all of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films. She relies on the sublimity of her landscapes to invoke awe, from the bucolic warmth of Fårö’s seaside grasses and silos in Bergman Island (2021) to the golden-hour summer light over the quais in Un beau matin. Her compositions are lucky for the beauty of her actors and settings; otherwise, they communicate little in the way of their arrangement and framing.
Hansen-Løve told the New York Times that the film’s final scene, a sentimental and overly literal trip to the top of Sacré-Coeur (she can’t even resist a literal freeze-frame finale), gaining an aerial view of the city which has been stifling Sandra for the duration, was something that really happened. What’s unfortunate about real life is that often it can seem too obvious, narratively inelegant, or stranger than fiction. The risk that attends autobiographical art is that the author might believe an ending is earned merely because it is true, a perilous presumption that bloats any work with lazy ego.
The inevitability of history, whatever the demands of the fiction might be, also encumbers the plot. After the family is informed that Georg must be relocated, Sandra’s mother, Françoise (Nicole Garcia), warns how dreadful private nursing homes are, disclosing that Georg may be condemned to live in a wing described as “Autonomy Level One.” Indeed, it often feels like Sandra operates at Autonomy Level One. She’s a protagonist to whom things continue happening, but whose only real acts of agency are defiance, resistance, and leaving one room to cry in another. While they prepare her father for the hospital, she retires to his bedroom to pack his shirts and breaks down. Later on, in a pivotal moment, she flees an impromptu singalong to weep privately down the hall. Even when Clément hurts her feelings, all she can stand to do is weave behind some labyrinthine hedges, only for him to jump out and scare her at the end.
At times, the quiet agony of playing bystander to Sandra’s passivity deftly tugs the viewer’s sympathies, but occasionally it verges on tedium. “Why do we wait?” her father asks her, ostensibly hallucinating, but getting at the deeper paucity of their lives. When she and Clément first encounter each other in the park, he asks why she never calls. “It’s you who leaves,” she says, and he does, three times. Excruciatingly Barthesian—“the lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits,” he wrote—the narrative seems to be constructed backwards. We watch as the main character, the engine of the story, is pulled through the lives of the two people dearest to her: her lover, flighty, and impetuous; and her father, in need of her constant care. She always comes when Clément calls despite the pain he causes, and is always ready to embrace him when he returns to her, which he does each of the three times. Even her own daughter doesn’t reciprocate her bids for affection. Early on, Sandra climbs in bed behind Linn, coaxing, “it takes two to snuggle,” but the girl stays limp.
The film’s greatest achievement comes in its revelations about the way we interact with art. In the hospital, Georg ruminates on the condition of terminal illness as a plotlessness, lamenting that each day used to have the identifiable edges of a film with a beginning, middle, and end, but now there’s nothing, just this waiting for something he doesn’t know is going to come. Structural imperfections of the screenplay aside, Hansen-Løve has written some of her best dialogue here. “I feel closer to my father with his books than with him,” Sandra says—more of him is reflected in the texts with which he surrounded himself than the body in the hospital. The truest heartbreak of the film is not the rejection by her lover, but from her father, though the abandonments mirror each other. Even from the first scene, when Georg refuses to put his cell phone down in order to eat the quiche Sandra has prepared, he asks after his “companion,” Leila; he needs to eat, but he wants romance.
The conflict between what one needs and what they want sits at the heart of the film, and, as Rohmer often concludes, there’s no trumping desire, not even with self-destruction. No matter what Sandra does for Georg, upending her calendar to care for him day after day, to take buses and trains and cars to the many facilities in which he stays, he always wants Leila. Eventually, Georg tells Sandra, apropos of nothing, only three people matter to him: Leila, himself, and a third person he can’t remember. When Sandra probes him, thinking her father might be joking, that of course it’s her, of course she matters, he says, that’s just it, he doesn’t know. She wants to save him, but she needs to be loved.
Arguably the most meaningful act of Sandra’s is a small but potent one—her father calls and she lets it ring. “But what if he needs something?” Linn asks. “He always does,” Sandra replies, exhausted, before snatching her daughter’s ice cream cone for just a taste of something sweet, for just a lick of pleasure. Georg’s mother, well into her nineties but with better vision and mobility than even him, explains to her granddaughter why she doesn’t run all the errands she needs to, saying that too much is in need of repair. You can’t fix it all.
France, Germany, Mia Hansen-Løve, UK