Summer Hours (2009)
Written and Directed by Olivier
Starring: Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, Jérémie
Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valérie Bonneton,
Run Time: 102 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Summer Hours is as perfectly formed
as the objets d’art that figure so heavily in its story.
Olivier Assayas has written a film with the grace and precision
of a true artist. The actors embody their roles with an air
of complete understanding, and the themes addressed are deeply
resonating, as timely as they are universal. This is grand
moviemaking. Assayas has made a masterpiece with the restrained
strokes of a contemplative and intelligent artist, and it’s
that restraint and intelligence that allows the film to exude
its power over us.
The film’s richness hinges on an otherwise quite common,
though momentous, phase of everyone’s life—the
death of an aging parent, and the practical matter of how
the heirs should divvy up the estate. Assayas chooses to keep
close to the surface of these events, concentrating on the
practicalities—the nuts and bolts of burying the dead,
like cemetery plots, appraisals, meetings with lawyers, the
wording of the obituary—and letting the concurrent emotional
and thematic elements flow out of these otherwise mundane
activities on their own. And flow they do, all the more poignantly
in their discretion.
The film is divided into three parts, with a brilliantly discordant
coda at the end. In the first, Assayas presents us with the
linchpin of a bourgeois French family, its matriarch Hélene
(Edith Scob), who lives alone on her country estate. On the
occasion of her 75th birthday, her three grown children and
their families come to celebrate, a rare family reunion now
that her children have moved away and built lives of their
own. Frédéric (Charles Berling), the oldest,
still lives nearby in Paris, but Jérémie (Jérémie
Renier) the youngest, has relocated with his family to China
for business, and her only daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche)
has chosen an expatriate’s life as an artist in New
York. The reunion reveals a family already long dismantled,
though the vestiges of its existence are still evident in
the exchanges around the opening of presents, the subtle rivalries
and intimacies between the three siblings, and the mother’s
dogged insistence on keeping the artifacts of her life—the
house and the substantial art collection she herself inherited—intact
while she is still alive. You wonder why Hélene has
so much emotional investment in all the objects around her,
until you realize that's all she has left. Hélene understands
that her role as the keeper of memories will be over after
she dies, and therefore the symbolic value of the objects
she holds dear—what she calls “the residue”
of a life—will also disappear. “A lot will die
with me—memories, secrets,” she tells her eldest
son. She knows Frédéric will be the one who
will find it hardest to let go of the past, and she discourages
him with some unsentimental advice. Sell it all, she tells
him. She has seen the inevitability of change herself, and
will not stand in its way.
A year later, the mother has died, and the film’s second
part once again concentrates on material concerns. After a
brief, and rather awkward, acknowledgement of the sadness
of their mother’s sudden passing, the siblings get down
to the business of their inheritance that evening over dinner.
The scene is an incredible piece of ensemble acting. The conversations
are extremely realistic, even banal in their lack of overly
dramatic buildup and tension. The siblings talk of practicalities—the
resemblance to real life conversation is deadly accurate—but
underneath, Assayas is showing us so much more. We are witnesses
to a family dirge; in effect, the dissolution of centuries
of accumulated history. Frédéric is there to
remind us with the sole expression of regret over the decision
to sell the house. He understands what is at stake. However
subtle and lacking in pathos, the emotion is painted within
the scene. Frédéric is the conduit of the nostalgia
we all experience when the last parent finally dies, and we
see our childhood die with them.
The last part of Summer Hours is the dispersal of
the estate, and the transfer of the mother’s art collection
to the Musée d’Orsay, the Paris museum that has
become another kind of cemetery, where the residue of French
culture has found its own final resting place. It is through
these scenes meticulously detailing the transmission of the
family’s treasured artifacts that we realize that Summer
Hours is about much more than the death of a mother,
or the end of a family. It’s about a whole society,
a nation, dying off. Globalization, in its attempt to merge
economies, is also transforming societies, and this not only
effects family traditions, but national cultures as well.
Here in the U.S., a country of immigrants and constant relocation,
we may not feel the effects so much, but France, and Europe
in general, is different. The ramifications present a more
complicated transformation, and, in some way, a more noticeable
sense of loss.
After all the acknowledgement of the end of things, Assayas
leaves us with a scene brimming with life. Frederic’s
teenage children have planned a weekend bacchanal at their
grandmother’s country house before the family has to
relinquish it to the new owners. We see young people descending
on a home that had been in stasis for so long. It’s
a scene of renewal; Assayas is not one to regret inevitable
change. It may not be the way it was before, but it’s
the flow of life, and being reminded of that helps to assuage
our melancholy for the past.
I found Summer Hours an uplifting film in the end.
Just as I did of last year’s other film commissioned
by the Musée d’Orsay to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon
also addresses the effects of globalization and contemporary
life on French society, but in a different way. In that film,
a Taiwanese director came to France to bask in its culture.
In Summer Hours, a wandering Frenchman—Assayas
often works outside of France—comes home to say goodbye.
Both films share a certain quiet (though not somber) tone,
where darkness and light commingle.
I’m about the same age as Olivier Assayas, a few years
younger, and my dad still lives in the same house I grew up
in. The house is like a member of our family, and I know the
day will come, sooner than I care to admit, when my sister
and I will have the same conversation as Frédéric,
Jérémie and Adrienne. I already know that my
sister’s sentimental attachment is like Frédéric’s
(I am more like Adrienne), but I, too, will have a hard time
letting go. Summer Hours speaks eloquently and profoundly
of an experience I know will be a difficult one for us. Beyond
what it says of the world at large, it’s still an intimate
film. I know that I’ll think of it when we empty my
father’s house of its half century of accumulated things,
and that it will comfort me with a sense of understanding.
That is, after all, what the best art is for.