The mystery of what the heart wants, and what it might get in return, is the theme of this humane, sympathetic movie from Mia Hansen-Løve. For all its tendency to soap opera, it has a lovely happy-sad sweetness. The setting is the briskly and urbanely photographed Paris that Hansen-Løve showed us in her second film, Father of My Children from 2009. Just as in that movie, she shows us familiar tourist landmarks without them seeming cliched. And of course, fathers again loom very large.
Léa Seydoux plays Sandra, a single mum, apparently widowed for many years, who speaks fluent English and German and works as an interpreter. We see her doing live audio-headphone translation at an international media conference, and also translating a powerful speech from a US army veteran at an Omaha beach reunion. The effect is to show us a clever, self-effacing professional who has been pushed to the margin of things, a little. She wears workaday jeans and sweaters and has a short haircut which looks businesslike rather than chic or gamine.
Sandra has shut down emotionally because of her loss and devotion to her ailing elderly father, a former philosophy professor called Georg, beautifully played by character-acting veteran Pascal Greggory, who has the cruel neurodegenerative disorder Benson’s syndrome which causes a loss of vision and mental faculties in ways which resemble dementia. Now Sandra and her mother – that is, her dad’s ex-wife (Nicole Garcia) – have to get the poor, heartbreakingly sweet-natured and confused old guy into a care home.
A tour of these institutions is embarked on and Seydoux shows us the classic, stunned response on seeing a place like this. Is it horrible? Should she try for somewhere better? Or is she simply not understanding that there may be nowhere better, nowhere that approximates his life before he needed a care home, and that these feelings she is having are just dismay and grief at what is happening. In parallel with all this, she experiences a kind of miracle, albeit of a fraught and complicated sort. Sandra runs into an old friend walking with his young son in the park; he is played by Melvil Poupaud and there is an instant spark. Soon they are having an adulterous affair made sexier by the gloomy sense that it is wrong and can’t last.
Sandra is thus torn between two emotionally unavailable men: her beloved father and this new surreptitious boyfriend, to whom Hansen-Løve has given the rather too-good-to-be-true interesting job of cosmochemist, studying meteorites and the like. Her father hurts her feelings (inevitably) by appearing to forget who she is and where they are when she comes to see him, and seems more pleased to see his partner – the woman he took up with after Sandra’s mother but who has not done much to help in this current situation. Sandra confesses that she feels closer to her dad through his books than the man himself. But just as her father is out of reach, so is her new lover, who still has a connection to his wife, the mother of his son.
It is a supremely difficult and painful situation and for all that Seydoux projects a cool and self-contained personality, her character is often very passive. She simply has to make the best of the situation with her dad and also accept it when her lover returns to his wife – waiting for his besotted texts, like a teenager. Perhaps Hansen-Løve could have given us a heroine with more agency, and she relies a little too much on Seydoux’s natural sardonic hauteur to protect her character from soppiness. But there is such a lovely chemistry between Seydoux and Greggory, and between her and Poupaud there is real erotic languor and romance.
• One Fine Morning screens at the Cannes film festival.