Everything in Its Right Place
By Jeff Reichert

Summer Hours
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films

Olivier Assayas has said that his intention with Summer Hours was to return home and make a “French film” in the wake of his globetrotting trilogy of demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate. Given the terrain he’s been plumbing for the better part of this decade, the first sequence of Summer Hours seems almost the work of another filmmaker—it’s a gently lovely prologue in which three siblings, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) gather with their spouses and children at the rambling country home of their long-dead great uncle Paul, a painter of some renown, that’s now occupied by their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob). The far-flung family—Adrienne’s a designer in New York, Jérémie works in China for an international sneaker company, while Frédéric teaches economics in Paris—has gathered for Hélène’s 75th birthday, and Assayas’s fleet camera captures the festivities in elliptical glimpses, from children returning breathless back to the house after playing games on the sprawling grounds, to the family housekeeper preparing a roast in the kitchen, to Hélène opening her present, an up-to-the-minute portable phone which she’s completely terrified of using. Assayas has always been good in a crowd—he doesn’t seek to dampen the bustle of everyday life and contain it with his camera, rather, like Hou Hsiao-hsien he reacts to the rhythms of a gathering with deft sensitivity. This setup is all very universal in its generalities, but the particulars couldn’t be more (stereo)typically “French”—mission accomplished, Olivier.

However, it isn’t long before the epic concerns shot through his previous three films—globalization, commodity exchange, object value, and how these impact individual lives—crop up in the narrative. During the festivities, Hélène pulls Frédéric aside to tour him through the house and point out the various objets d’art arrayed throughout so that he’ll be better able to manage their sale after she’s gone. Frédéric wants to hear none of it, insisting that the house should remain the cluttered summer haven it has always been for the sake of the family’s next generation, putting off questions of his mother’s mortality until another day—he may be an economist, but he’s also the family’s quiet romantic. However, after the party, after everyone’s left Hélène for flights abroad, and after a beautifully economical fade to a few months later, Assayas reveals that the family matriarch has indeed passed away, opening up those very questions of inheritance Frédéric sought to avoid during the party. Pretty standard stuff for a family-in-transition drama, but it’s where Assayas decides to go next that hammers home the importance of this initial exchange.

Another gathering: this time a summit of the siblings and their spouses in Paris—no children in sight—sets in motion the body of Summer Hours. After an impassioned oration on how the house should be maintained for the benefit of all of their children and grudging, silent approval from his younger brother and sister, Frédéric’s fragile coalition begins to unravel. Adrienne’s life is clearly organized minute-to-minute and is obviously centered in the U.S., and she seems almost strange to her family from her years abroad, (courtesy of Binoche’s quietly eccentric performance, riffing a bit on her frazzled Flight of the Red Balloon creation), while Jérémie talks of re-upping his contract and raising his family in China with scant time left over for returning to France. Uncle Paul’s house, for these two, is an unnecessary nuisance for their 21st-century lives. Assayas’s point is clear: the technologies that have allowed families to extend their geographic bounds beyond the village community system of the 19th century as represented by Paul’s house and its environs have grown so powerful over the course of the 20th century in the service of commerce that they’ve stretched familial relationships beyond the breaking point.

Once the decision has been made, the rest of the film is a rueful series of meetings with lawyers and appraisers as the priceless treasures the house contains are divvied up. Notice the kind of art under discussion: A few paintings, a set of Paul’s private sketchbooks, but the bulk of the collection consists of turn of the century art nouveau furniture pieces, vases, decorative panels, and the like. Here’s Assayas at his most slyly intellectual, channeling questions of art and commodity through objects from that moment where mass industry and artisanal workmanship came crashing together into his mournful family drama. This will most likely be the stuff that prompts certain critics to assault Summer Hours for heavy-handedness, but could Assayas’s touch with this weighty material be any lighter? Especially when he punctures his own conceit with good humor—a tossed-off bit near the end involving the family housekeeper forces the realization that not just beauty, but value is often in eye of the beholder and thus a malleable category.

Assayas hearkens back to Cold Water for a brilliant final sequence that provides a perfect bookend to his opening, and a transition into some imagined beyond outside of the physical boundaries of Summer Hours. After Frédéric and his wife, Lisa (Dominique Reymond), briefly tour the Musée d’Orsay to visit their donations to see how they’ve been re-contextualized in the context of the museum (and a quick, winning cut to the two of them laughing over dessert after) Assayas takes us back to Paul’s house for one last visit. Frédéric’s daughter, Sylvie, has invited a posse of friends over to spend one last weekend partying before the sale is completed. The space, once full of quiet, resting objects now bursts with life as Assayas’s camera tracks the youths as they overtake the structure, blasting hip-hop, smoking joints, drinking, carousing. Yet the memories remain around the edges, and as the director cranes up for a final shot of Sylvie and her boyfriend receding across the field, he pipes in the Incredible String Band’s “Little Cloud”—a track surely more valuable as a touchstone of times passed for the filmmakers than for any of the characters we’re watching. Summer Hours is an elegy then, for this family, for a kind of life vanishing rapidly, and perhaps for Assayas himself. It’s a great film for the way it nimbly ties its various strands into something restful and pleasurable, and it’s about as far removed in tone from its immediate predecessors in Assayas’s oeuvre as can be imagined, yet it still finds a fascinating new vista from which to re-view those films’ core concerns. This is how great filmmakers build careers: through reinvention, whittling down, abrupt departures, and making all the supposed “detours” seem, in retrospect, like ready signposts along a clearly delimited path.

Read an interview with Olivier Assayas about Summer Hours.