The past year was a big one for autobiographical filmmaking, with James Gray’s childhood heartbreak in “Armageddon Time,” Sam Mendes’ ode to moviegoing in the UK with “Empire of Light,” Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s dreamlike self-reflexive filmmaker odyssey “Bardo,” and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which turned the world’s most successful director into an Oscar frontrunner for his most personal movie. The others came up short in their own campaigns, but the best autobiographical movie of the past year was one the awards season never fully embraced.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s “One Fine Morning” is only the latest sensitive and personal project from the French auteur to build its drama from her own life. Among the recent movies that fall into that trend, it provides the strongest example of a filmmaker attuned to the challenges of drawing from her own story, as Hansen-Løve has done for years.
From her sophomore effort “The Father of My Children” — inspired by the suicide of French film producer Humbert Balsan, a close colleague — to 2021’s “Bergman Island,” which drew on her former relationship with fellow director Olivier Assayas, the 41-year-old filmmaker has long embraced the potential of funneling her personal world into her cinema. Whereas Spielberg spent decades building up to “The Fabelmans,” Hansen-Løve confronted that challenge right out of the gate.
“Sometimes, I read interviews with directors saying they watch other films and really analyze them,” she said in an interview with IndieWire. “I do the opposite. I feel like I’m literally diving into my own experience. I try to forget about anything else and find the structure of the film that reflects my experience of life. For me, it’s really about trying to be faithful to that.”
With “One Fine Morning,” Hansen-Løve’s fictionalized drama draws from the recent memory of losing her father to a neurodegenerative disease in the early days of the pandemic. A subdued and perceptive Lea Seydoux stars as the Hansen-Løve stand-in, Parisian translator Sandra, a single mother who shifts between the hardships of watching her father fade to the excitement of a new romance.
Hansen-Løve began researching the movie while her father was ill, and rushed to finish the script before he passed away. “I’m really glad I did it that way,” she said. “If I hadn’t, I never would’ve made this film. The experience of his death would’ve totally covered the experience of his disease. I had to do it while he was still there, when I could still see how he talks, how he behaves. I wouldn’t have been able psychologically to go back.”
Last fall, distributor Sony Pictures Classics was gearing up for the first serious awards campaign in the director’s 15-year career. However, while France included it on a shortlist of potential Oscar submissions, the country ultimately selected the more formally ambitious “Saint Omer,” which wasn’t nominated; additional awards potential for “One Fine Morning,” including a Best Actress campaign for Seydoux, lost momentum from there. Hansen-Løve was unfazed by the false sense of hope. “My films are not the kind of films that get a lot of prizes,” she said. “I’m kind of happy I don’t have this problem.”
Nevertheless, she has managed to attract plenty of attention from international stars, including Seydoux. The actress embraced the opportunity for a less ostentatious project after juggling everything from David Cronenberg’s bizarre sci-fi effort “Crimes of the Future” to her prominent role in the most recent James Bond movie. The character of Sandra, Seydoux said in a separate interview, was “not like a fantasy or an object of desire. She has a job, she’s a mother, and we feel that she’s struggling in life. I was very touched by that.”
Hansen-Løve in turn said she was keen on casting Seydoux to push her toward a degree of realism beyond what other filmmakers had asked of her. “Lea has a sadness about her that moves me,” Hansen-Løve said. “I thought maybe I could use that differently from what we’ve seen from her in the films. She’s been filmed crying a lot, but mainly from the male perspective — very glamorous, dressed-up, very different from this character who’s more simple and down to earth. This was new for her.”
As for the actress portraying a variation of Hansen-Løve, the filmmaker said she allowed her star to develop the character on her own. “It’s her sadness, not mine,” Hansen-Løve said, noting the moments where the character breaks down in tears. “I never asked her to cry,” she said. “She was just reacting to the situation in her own way. Her own sensibility liberated me from my own story.”
By contrast, the performance by Pascal Greggory as the character’s ailing father was steeped in autobiographical details. Hansen-Løve recorded her father, a lifelong philosophy professor, as his linguistic abilities deteriorated and he started to speak in nonsensical terms. She quoted from these recordings in the script. “It was like a poetic language, close to absurdity,” she said. “I wanted it to be true. It’s so difficult for an actor to play that, it’s such a big issue, and can be so easily fake.”
Language is often at the core of Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking, so it should come as no surprise that she was inspired by the filmmakers of the French New Wave, in particular the chatty, metaphysical work of Eric Rohmer (who cast Greggory in several films). “I’m not trying to imitate him,” she said. “That would be ridiculous. But I admire his integrity throughout his whole life. I never tire of his films.”
She confessed to writing a fan letter to Rohmer in college. “It was such a ridiculous letter, and I hope it will never be published,” she said. She was also a huge admirer of Francois Truffaut, who died before she was born. “I would have probably fallen in love with him. That’s the relationship I have with filmmakers. It’s not only about their films. It’s about the whole thing, the way I feel their presence.”
Nevertheless, she was reticent to acknowledge any precise influences on her work. “When I make my films, it’s about finding my own language,” she said. “It’s more about the way of practicing cinema, the deep values, the ethics of them. The idea is that if you want to make the films as personal as possible, you need to write them yourselves.”
That logic helps explain why she has been hesitant to tackle more commercial opportunities that might involve a greater degree of collaboration on the script. (She once took a meeting about directing Marvel’s “Black Widow,” but never took the opportunity seriously.)
“The films that matter the most to me are the ones where I can see the person as one voice,” she said. “I don’t enjoy when it feels like 10 people are talking to me. It doesn’t move me. I want to make films that express my experience of life the same way they did.”
However, Hansen-Løve said she enjoyed working in English for “Bergman Island” and hoped to continue filmmaking beyond the constraints of her home country. “Many French directors keep making their films with the same people,” she said. “I find it vital to not be a prisoner of a certain little world, a certain system.” She was keeping her options open for the next project.
“As long as I’m free, I will work anywhere I can understand the language,” she said. “If I’m not free, I won’t make films. That will always determine my choices and the way I write.”
Hansen-Løve has mulled on many personal hardships through her work, but said that directing “One Fine Morning” ended up being a cathartic process as she grieved her father.
“Everybody who’s been through this kind of experience knows that you ask yourself what it means,” she said. “You ask yourself, ‘Is this the truth? Is this what we’re living for, to end up like this? Does suffering and pain have the last word?’” She shrugged. “I want to believe that no, there is more,” she said. “I went through happy things at the same moment and that gave me hope. I wrote the film to try to transmit that complex feeling about life.”
“One Fine Morning” is now in limited theatrical release.
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