Warm, sweet and steeped in good memories

Summer Hours

on April 23, 2009 by John P. McCarthy
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Audible throughout Olivier Assayas’ wistful drama are the rustling sighs of France’s art-loving leisure-class and the wheezing of European cultural hegemony. Fortunately, a masterful movie like Summer Hours is a tonic and a bulwark against both erosions of influence. Assayas presents a contemplative etude on the passage of time and the markings of material and spiritual loss. The film’s Chekhovian intonations will resonate with those who fancy they have a stake in the shifting cultural landscape, along with anyone whose mother or father has passed away. That’s an enormous pool and here’s hoping many emerge to buy tickets.

Matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob), a caretaker of past artistic bounty, introduces Assayas’ grand themes of decline and regeneration. Her three grown children and their children gather to celebrate her birthday at her shabbily genteel home outside Paris. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer living in New York; Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) works for the Puma shoe company in China; and the oldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), is an economics professor in Paris. As the kids play and their parents catch up and focus on practical matters (her children gift her a cordless phone), Hélène is preoccupied. She pulls her children aside to discuss what will become of the collection of 19th and 20th-century modernist artwork and furniture she inherited from her beloved uncle, a painter of some renown whose estate and reputation she has devotedly guarded for decades.

Sure enough, the conversations are timely. After the family has gone, Helene sits gazing out at her garden in the gloaming and dies. Accompanied by cello music, the sequence is as beautiful as it is inevitable. Will they sell the two valuable paintings by Corot or keep them in the family to enjoy? What will happen to the house itself? Frédéric, the only one not living abroad, wants to keep everything in tact, preserving the legacy for the next generation. Adrienne pursues an export license to sell her great uncle’s notebooks in the U.S., and Jérémie’s feelings are driven by his money woes. Appraisers and curators sift through the house. Representatives of the Musée d'Orsay arrive and urge the children to keep the most significant items in France. Helene’s longtime housekeeper and a teenage grandchild figure in the plot, and a secret is revealed concerning Hélène and her uncle.

Every family must grapple with their heritage and posterity in some form or another. During those early conversations, Hélène was alternately sentimental and realistic. She made a distinction between being possessed by chattel and being possessed by the memories associated with “bric-a-brac from another era.” What is ordinary and what is special? What should remain within reach and what is best left to memory while being made accessible to the masses? The children don’t offer predictable answers. An accomplished designer of china, home décor and furnishings, Adrienne is emotionally sensitive yet slightly mercenary. Frédéric, who has predicted the decline of the discipline of economics in his latest book, is disposed to cling without really believing he can hang on. For his part, Jérémie is on the front lines of globalization and the passing of the cultural and economic torch from Europe and America to Asia. Assayas emphasizes this motif by putting Asian music on the soundtrack and by zeroing in on the fate of a pair of “Chinesey” vases Hélène owned.

His camera dispassionately catalogues the pieces of art, Hélène’s home and the varied reactions of his characters, whether they’re self-appointed guardians of French culture, indifferent or somewhere in between. He doesn’t linger on any perspective or object; there are many lovely images but nothing is made precious. And he leads his handsome, talented cast to a place where the emotional interplay is believably understated and thus engrossing. Is French culture still relevant? Do antiques or exquisite examples of modernist design—and the people who adore them—still matter? Clear-eyed, Assayas assumes a perspective that matches the warm season. He gives the pleasures and temptations of the present their due, along with nostalgic glances backward and apprehensive nods to the future. An artist, he appreciates the richness of things-in-themselves and their utility. According to Summer Hours, choosing one approach at the expense of the other—attempting to be exclusively Oriental or Occidental—is to endorse an obsolete dichotomy.

Distributor: IFC
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond and Isabelle Sadoyan
Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Marin Karmitz and Nathanael Karmitz
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 99 min
Release date: May 15 ltd.

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