C’est pas forcément la misère
C’est pas Valmy, c’est pas Verdun
Mais c’est des larmes aux paupières
Au jour qui meurt, au jour qui vient
Et sans prévenir, ça arrive
Ça vient de loin
Ça c’est promené de rive en rive
Le rire en coin
Et puis un matin, au réveil
C’est presque rien
Mais c’est là, ça vous émerveille
Au creux des reins
Le (petit) mal de vivre
The painful feeling of an apartment being emptied out. As a daughter goes through her father’s belongings it seems that his spirit is more present in the books he has amassed over the years than in the person his illness has made him become. In Un beau matin life is contained in all the things we collect or we touch and in those bits of memory and experience that we leave behind to be passed on. What matters most are the smaller moments that gravitate around the grand inevitable crises and culminations of being alive, the minor but somehow ultimately fleeting tragedies that pass through all of our lives.
In tune with the sensibility we might expect from Mia Hansen-Løve, the relationship between the father and the daughter is an autobiographical one. As the credits discreetly let us find out, the ailing father of Sandra (a very tender Léa Seydoux) is inspired by Hansen-Løve’s own father, the translator and philosopher Ole Hansen-Løve, who suffered from the same neurodegenerative disorder as his fictional counterpart, Georg, played by a heart-breaking Paul Greggory. But illness is not treated with miserabilism. Instead, through her onscreen alter-ego, Hansen-Løve approaches the things we cannot control with a very gentle serenity of surrender to the unpredictability of life. That does not mean that things do not hurt, perhaps they do so twice as much when we understand the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with accepting your own helplessness in front of the ones you love slowly deteriorating in mind and spirit before your eyes. We are not invited to pity, but to relate.
Hansen-Løve’s cinema is one that celebrates vulnerability and fragility, here presented as inherent and inevitable parts of life. There’s the physical vulnerability of illness and old age present in Georg, as he is moved from home to hospital and then to a nursing home. We see his failing sight, his failing health, and how he becomes increasingly dependent on others. But there’s also the fragility of love, both romantic and familial, that follows Sandra. She’s a widowed single mother still haunted by the death of her husband, who allows herself to be vulnerable by trying for love again and entering a complicated, but sweet, relationship with an old friend who is still married, Clement (Melvil Poupaud). There’s a semantic tension surrounding the idea of fragility in that it implies the possibility of being broken (see the French cassable). So seem to be the terms of the back-and-forth relationship between Sandra and Clement—they start seeing each other fully being aware that, because of each other’s circumstances, one, if not both of them, will eventually get hurt.
Semantics are essential to Un beau matin. For Sandra, who works as a translator, it is important to find the right word. She is careful with the language she uses and knows the weight of each word—”I’m your mistress, not your lover”, she retorts to Clement. The boring, exact terms of science seminars that she live-translates contrast with the reality of life: something will always escape translation. Words hurt, soothe, and heal in Un beau matin, but Hansen-Løve is also concerned with what is left unsaid or cannot be articulated in the first place. As a writer, Georg’s declining ability of expressing thoughts becomes a metaphor for frustration, recalling, in a different light, the Godardian “you talk to me with words, I look at you with feelings”. It’s hard to put a word—the right word—on the relationship between daughter and father. It’s an evasive sentiment; there’s a touch of profound love, a touch of fear, but also a touch of inescapable selfishness. “Kill me if I ever become like him”, asks Sandra of Clement, an act that semantically implies violence, but which, in reality, begs for kindness.
Un beau matin greatest strength is the familiarity of its conflicting sentiments. Many of us have sat before emptied apartments. We might be going through the same things. Hansen-Løve invites us to give up the illusion of control and embrace the sadness that is to come, for there is always the bittersweet reassurance that all things will inevitably end someday. We will cry, but there’s always the innocent hope that one day, one morning, things will be better. We will wake up and all the small misfortunes of our lives will seem insignificant and, conversely, all the small, unexceptional experiences we’ve spent together will seem like the grandest of things.