By Jeffrey Overstreet
Olivier Assayas’ beautiful new movie Summer Hours begins as three successful, well-educated siblings reunite in the backyard of the rural French house where they grew up. They’re celebrating their mother’s birthday with a leisurely party on her beautiful property.
And yet their mother Hélène (Edith Scob)—whose family history is full of art-making and art acquisition—is jumpy and distracted. She’s nearing the end of her life, and everyone is dancing around a discomforting question: What will happen to this house full of history, and to all of the valuable works of art within it, when the matriarch passes on?
It isn’t long before the inevitable occurs, and the siblings are left to sort it out. One—Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest—wants to keep the house and its famous paintings for their history and personal significance. Others—Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—don’t plan to spend time there, and their immediate needs could be alleviated by the sale of the house.
The film resonates with emotions as authentic as the details. (Assayas’ own mother died as he was developing the project.) But the movie is more than a family drama. It asks us to consider what happens to art and history in a culture that is increasingly uninterested in what lasts, and that seems content with more frivolous, temporal, and portable pleasures?
Summer Hours was crafted as an entry in a series for the Musée d’Orsay. (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, one of my favorite films of 2008, was the first in that series.) But even though the French Ministry of Culture gave up on that project, Assayas’ film takes us through the museum’s bright, hallowed halls so that we can consider whether certain pieces of furniture really belong “in captivity.” As quoted by A.O. Scott, Assayas meant to consider “how art comes from real life and ends up in a museum, as if in a zoo or a mausoleum, and how ultimately that changes the nature of art.”
The film asks us to ponder what makes the objects in our lives “meaningful.” The Berthiers’ house is alive with museum-worthy treasures: paintings by Camille Corot, a desk by Louis Majorelle, an exquisite silver tray textured like a leaf. But in one incidental moment, as Frederic opens up a “valuable” Italian armoire, we watch him withdraw a cheap plastic airplane toy, and his expression reveals that this item carries personal significance for him, whereas the famous furniture in which it was stashed does not.
When they surrender Hélène’s extraordinary desk to the museum, it feels like they’re imprisoning a Bird of Paradise behind glass in a zoo.
The film’s final scene may seem to some a dismaying conclusion—chaos conquering order, classics being crushed by “progress.” The next generation is given the run of the estate for a weekend. They bring along a tribe of young revelers, and the place comes alive with clamor and chaos.
But for some viewers it will seem an exhilarating beginning—a multicultural future in which new possibilities are informed and enhanced by echoes of the past. During the revels, one young woman pauses and looks at the scene, awake to the beauty of the place because she once saw it in a memorable work of art. It’s a remarkable, poignant moment.
While Assayas’ conclusion seems to acknowledge that this pastoral style of French storytelling is as antique as any of the characters’ possessions, he films his subjects with warmth and affection. The grief of the family’s loss is eased by the grace of light and natural beauty caught in the camera of Eric Gautier (who also filmed Into the Wild).
But there is an invigorating energy breaking through in that final scene, as he carries us forward to join the revelers. It feels as if cinema itself is hurtling into a future full of bright possibilities.