Review: ‘Summer Hours’ an intelligent take on importance of possessions
August 6, 2009
ASPEN – “Summer Hours,” by French writer/director Olivier Assayas, is what you might call a gab-fest. The film opens at an outdoor dinner party with several generations of a sophisticated, well-to-do family in attendance, and there is such a circular swirl of conversation that I wondered if French-speakers would have as much trouble as I did figuring out who was saying what, and what it all meant. The camera observes the action at a distance, with few close-ups of the characters’ faces: It is what they say, not how they look, that matters. Plot-wise, not much happens and, significantly, the most crucial plot element – the death of the matriarch, Helene (Edith Scob) – is literally skipped over. One moment she’s there, and then she is not. I suppose, in Assayas’ view, if there were no words coming out of Helene’s mouth as she passed, why bother showing it?
I think Assayas could have paid closer attention to his actors, and a little less to his script. When the movies went from silent to talkies, there was a strong chorus of fans who believed that words would drain meaning out of them, that the best way to convey emotion was a tight shot of the actors’ facial and body expression. There might still be some making that argument. And in “Summer Hours,” Assayas has the lovely and talented Juliette Binoche to work with, and I found myself at times craving a better, more lingering look into her eyes.
Fortunately, “Summer Hours” has something to say, and says it intelligently. (Double fortunate that the confuzzling rush of dialogue from the early dinner scene ends there, otherwise I would not have made it to the end.) It begins in a place that has been explored before – the conflicts that arise when a family’s artifacts are passed down to the next generation – but brings that topic into the present, raising issues of globalization, feminism, the value of objects, and even tax law.
Helene, despite appearing to be a vigorous 75-year-old, is concerned about her health. (Perhaps a quick zoom to her face would have given the viewer more reason to share her worries?) She has three children, all grown, all doing reasonably well in life: Adrienne (Binoche), a New York designer of high-end products; Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), a married businessman living in China; and Frederic (Charles Berling), an economics professor who has stayed in France. Left in their own worlds, their own lives, the three are little to worry about.
So Helene frets instead over her possessions. There are sketchbooks from her uncle, a famous painter; some notable pieces of furniture that the Musee d’Orsay might like to have; a few paintings. And there is the summer house, a sweet, old – and rarely visited – home in a magnificently verdant countryside.
As the siblings deal with museum officials, estate attorneys, their mother’s lingering expectations – and mostly, with one another – “Summer Hours” offers the unsentimental notion that things are just things. A potentially valuable vase is allowed to be taken, mistakenly perhaps, by Helene’s longtime housekeeper, and the family gives a collective shrug: She likes the vase, she can have it.
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This laissez-faire attitude fits with the rest of the film. When Helene dies, we brace ourselves for the fratricide to come. It doesn’t. Adrienne, Jeremie and Frederic bicker some, get in some jabs – but they also laugh and remember and commiserate. A mini-drama in Frederic’s family serves to remind the viewer that there are more important matters than where the Art Noveau armoire ends up.
The film ends with another party at the summer house. This time, it’s Frederic’s teenage daughter and her pot-smoking, hip-hop-listening friends, who set up for a weekend of debauchery. There are no cherished memories involved, and the film seems to be saying this is the natural (or at least, modern) order of things: Use those things up and move on.