BluRay/DVD Reviews

SUMMER HOURS

By • Aug 2nd, 2010 •

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“A lot of this will be leaving with me. . .
memories. . .
secrets. . .
stories that interest no one anymore.
But, there’s the residue. There are objects. . .”
–Hélène, in Summer Hours

I was going to begin like this: SUMMER HOURS tells the all too familiar story (at least for those of us who have endured it) of how the death of a matriarch affects the lives of her grown children and their offspring. Yet I found myself not buying my own summary. In spite of the fact that the characters are distinct and well-played, their relationships subtle and complex, the film is only secondarily about them. Really, this is a contemplation of what happens to a home–venerable and elegant, bohemian and ramshackle–when the last remaining resident dies, and the heirs no longer want it.

Olivier Assayas, who wrote and directed SUMMER HOURS, does not stoop to anthropomorphizing the house. It’s just a house, lovely but implacable. It’s definitely seen its share of drama and tranquility, crowds and emptiness over the years, but it remains mum.

We first see it encompassing a summer party celebrating the 75th birthday of Hélène (Edith Scob – of LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, also from Criterion). The grandchildren cavort in the lush, overgrown gardens, as the adults, assisted by longtime familial retainer Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), prepare a feast. Meanwhile, Hélène insists that her reluctant eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) join her in a conversation concerning how he will dispose of the house and its various treasures after her demise. She shows him (he says, for the thousandth time) the valuable paintings by Corot, the original artwork of her beloved uncle, the late 19th century designer furniture. He balks, insisting that it will all remain in the family for generations to come.

But Frédéric is the only child who still lives in France. Though the others visit in the summers, her artsy single daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives on the cutting edge of NYC culture, and her entrepreneurial younger son Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) has moved his family to Beijing.

From the beginning, the lighting and cinematography establish the house as a mutable character. During the family gathering, the camera reveals the interior and exterior environment as it moves fluidly from food to presents to people to objects. The atmosphere is bright and vibrant, busy and warm; almost claustrophobic. Later, when everyone is gone, Hélène sits in the blue light of evening. A motionless camera regards her across the space, once populated with bodies and chatter, now empty save Hélène and the possessions that have witnessed her life.

We don’t see the house again until the winter following Hélène’s death, when appraisers arrive to poke and prod and strip away the treasures. In the country, winter is a bleak ghost of the verdant seasons, especially when the landscape is viewed through smeared portals of an unlived in house. Inside the rooms, homely objects–corkscrews and cleaning products–have been uprooted from their normal keeping places and are scattered forlornly. Precious things–artwork and antiques–are swaddled for removal; the walls and floors they once graced with their presence now denuded.

Our final view of the house takes place days before it is to be surrendered to buyers. It’s summer again, and Frederic’s children are having one final party. Droves of teenagers arrive, on foot, by car, by motorbike. They crowd the defrocked rooms and the grounds, drinking and smoking, laughing, happy for the freedom provided by their surroundings, but basically oblivious to their environment. Frederic’s daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) pauses for a moment and says “[grandmother] said one day I’d bring my children here. . . . My grandmother’s dead, and the house is sold.” But before things can get maudlin, she shakes it off and returns to frolicking with her boyfriend.

In the meantime, Sylvie’s parents visit the Musée d’Orsay, where the furniture and knick knacks from Hélène’s house are now on display. They watch as a bored group of tourists passes by and Frédéric muses: “Doesn’t it seem caged? . . .Vases mean something with flowers in a living room. Otherwise they are disenchanted, inanimate.”

The performances that weave together this tale of a house and its contents are wonderful. The ensemble scenes–the opening birthday party; a drawn out dinner where the tension is palpable but unspoken, as the siblings decide the house’s fate; the young people’s summer celebration–feel very real and fully lived. On the “extras” DVD Assayas says that all film is about time, and in SUMMER HOURS, he presents two perspectives on time simultaneously. The story of the inanimate objects is about how the mysterious past is brought into the uncomprehending future, whereas the human story is all about the present moment.

The Criterion Collection has provided a nice package for this movie, comprising a full color booklet with a thoughtful essay by Kent Jones, and an extra disc. That disc contains interviews with the principals involved and two “making of” documentaries–one about the film and one about the art used in the film. Interestingly enough, the impetus for this film was not initially personal. It was supposed to be part of a project produced by the Musée d’Orsay. In celebration of its 20th anniversary the museum’s director invited an international group of directors to create films around the objects in the museum’s collection. That project never materialized, but Assayas’ mother died while he was working on the script, and he turned the original idea into this full-length feature. The result balances perfectly on the edge of the personal and the abstract.

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