Time is one of the pillars of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films. We follow characters through changing weathers, years and decades. “All my films deal with passing of time in some way, the earlier films were more obvious in this regard as there were longer stretches in their stories and some films focus on shorter periods,” she says over Zoom. “But the question of time, growth and how we change and how much we remain the same is at the heart of my films.”
Time is fluid in her films. The earlier films like Goodbye First Love and Eden jump across timelines, sometimes displaying the place and year on screen. “I have been exploring through the tools of cinema how to film this. People do ask me why I didn’t use the same process as my first feature, but the reason is, well, I’ve done it already! I am interested in the question of time, and I think it is central to what cinema is. It is about capturing the presences and absences of the people we love, and that has a lot to do with time”.
In her latest film Un beau matin (One Fine Morning, streaming exclusively on MUBI from 16 June), the most visible pointer we have is the weather. It’s the story of Sandra (Léa Seydoux), a translator and a single mother with an ageing father, a retired philosophy professor suffering from a neurodegenerative disease affecting his cognitive abilities. The character is drawn from the filmmaker’s father, who was a philosophy teacher. Many of her films are autobiographical in tiny ways.
As Sandra juggles motherhood, her personal life and caring for her father’s deteriorating health, months pass and we observe a woman finding hope in times of distress and love in the time of loneliness. Scenes linger a moment or two longer, like in everything Hansen-Løve has made so far, but we also jump through months at a time. In a matter of two or three scenes, we go from summery clothes to winter jackets and cold weather and return to a summer.
The tool here is a result of the film’s thematic concerns. “I wanted this film to be austere. Because of what it is about, the disease, I wanted to look at it in the eye and not escape. That’s why unlike my other films there are no digression at a countryside or in the river or some other country. Sometimes you breathe during such moments. That doesn’t mean it is dark, there is a lot of joy and happiness, but I wanted it to come from the sensuality and love and the rest of it to focus on Sandra’s relationship with her father.” This lends itself to scenes in hospitals, in palliative care centres, streets and public transport; things that Hansen-Løve believes give the film a more minimalistic approach.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s films have an affinity for public transport. Or the more independent means of getting around, like the bikes in Bergman Island or the buses and trains of Goodbye First Love, Eden and Things to Come. They do project the austerity that she’s talking about. In One Fine Morning, we see long shots of Sandra on cobbled footpaths, stations, subways and buses. “It’s maybe because I’ve spent so much time in buses in Paris myself and I love filming buses. I think they are very photogenic.” I pointed out to her that there is a similarity between two bus scenes, one in Things to Come and the other in One Fine Morning. In Things to Come, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is in a window seat on a bus and discovers her husband with another woman on the street. It produces a strange disposition in her; Huppert offers mild melancholy dominated by a relieved cackle. In One Fine Morning, Sandra gets into a bus and begins to cry from a shot of happiness even while going through tremendous despair. Hansen-Løve suggests another addition. “You are right, those scenes are completely connected although I never thought of it, and you could add a third scene from Goodbye First Love, where the main character after years meets an ex-boyfriend’s mother in a bus. Although she’s not crying, she is in a state of shock.”
She goes on to explain the difference between the characters played by Isabelle Huppert and Léa Seydoux. “Nathalie laughs as she cries because she has a lot of self-awareness and a great sense of humour that ultimately saves her. That’s why she’s able to react like that when she sees her husband with another woman. With Lea, she cries out of joy. It’s the only moment she does that in the film. They are tears of joy which is something special for her.” It’s almost a single take, which helps us understand better how she arrives at that state. Seydoux is fantastic in holding the closeup. “I was extremely impressed by Léa when we shot that. I may have included some text messages but used one long shot, there is really no editing here and we can see on her face what she’s going through.”
The film is about Sandra straddling different states of being and questioning whether she deserves to be happy along the way. Even when Sandra is happy, she’s cautious about it showing. “That question is very much present in the film and that’s also what makes her cry in several scenes. Her tears relate to that—guilty of abandoning her father or how she’s happy but silent as she climbs up the Sacré-Cœur with her daughter and boyfriend. Although she’s happy and in love, there is something that pulls her back from expressing those feelings. She grapples with what she considers to be a selfish desire of reaching her happiness and at the same time the difficulty of not turning towards her father. There is one part of her that always wants to move on and look to the future.”
Aditya Shrikrishna is a freelance writer and film critic from Chennai.