Everything in Its Right Place
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films
Olivier Assayas has said that his intention with Summer Hours was to return home and make a â€śFrench filmâ€ť in the wake of his globetrotting trilogy of demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate. Given the terrain heâ€™s been plumbing for the better part of this decade, the first sequence of Summer Hours seems almost the work of another filmmakerâ€”itâ€™s a gently lovely prologue in which three siblings, FrĂ©dĂ©ric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and JĂ©rĂ©mie (JĂ©rĂ©mie Renier) gather with their spouses and children at the rambling country home of their long-dead great uncle Paul, a painter of some renown, thatâ€™s now occupied by their mother, HĂ©lĂ¨ne (Edith Scob). The far-flung familyâ€”Adrienneâ€™s a designer in New York, JĂ©rĂ©mie works in China for an international sneaker company, while FrĂ©dĂ©ric teaches economics in Parisâ€”has gathered for HĂ©lĂ¨neâ€™s 75th birthday, and Assayasâ€™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 HĂ©lĂ¨ne opening her present, an up-to-the-minute portable phone which sheâ€™s completely terrified of using. Assayas has always been good in a crowdâ€”he doesnâ€™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 couldnâ€™t be more (stereo)typically â€śFrenchâ€ťâ€”mission accomplished, Olivier.
However, it isnâ€™t long before the epic concerns shot through his previous three filmsâ€”globalization, commodity exchange, object value, and how these impact individual livesâ€”crop up in the narrative. During the festivities, HĂ©lĂ¨ne pulls FrĂ©dĂ©ric aside to tour him through the house and point out the various objets dâ€™art arrayed throughout so that heâ€™ll be better able to manage their sale after sheâ€™s gone. FrĂ©dĂ©ric 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 familyâ€™s next generation, putting off questions of his motherâ€™s mortality until another dayâ€”he may be an economist, but heâ€™s also the familyâ€™s quiet romantic. However, after the party, after everyoneâ€™s left HĂ©lĂ¨ne 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 FrĂ©dĂ©ric sought to avoid during the party. Pretty standard stuff for a family-in-transition drama, but itâ€™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 Parisâ€”no children in sightâ€”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, FrĂ©dĂ©ricâ€™s fragile coalition begins to unravel. Adrienneâ€™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 Binocheâ€™s quietly eccentric performance, riffing a bit on her frazzled Flight of the Red Balloon creation), while JĂ©rĂ©mie talks of re-upping his contract and raising his family in China with scant time left over for returning to France. Uncle Paulâ€™s house, for these two, is an unnecessary nuisance for their 21st-century lives. Assayasâ€™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 Paulâ€™s house and its environs have grown so powerful over the course of the 20th century in the service of commerce that theyâ€™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 Paulâ€™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. Hereâ€™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 Assayasâ€™s touch with this weighty material be any lighter? Especially when he punctures his own conceit with good humorâ€”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 FrĂ©dĂ©ric and his wife, Lisa (Dominique Reymond), briefly tour the MusĂ©e dâ€™Orsay to visit their donations to see how theyâ€™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 Paulâ€™s house for one last visit. FrĂ©dĂ©ricâ€™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 Assayasâ€™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 Bandâ€™s â€śLittle Cloudâ€ťâ€”a track surely more valuable as a touchstone of times passed for the filmmakers than for any of the characters weâ€™re watching. Summer Hours is an elegy then, for this family, for a kind of life vanishing rapidly, and perhaps for Assayas himself. Itâ€™s a great film for the way it nimbly ties its various strands into something restful and pleasurable, and itâ€™s about as far removed in tone from its immediate predecessors in Assayasâ€™s oeuvre as can be imagined, yet it still finds a fascinating new vista from which to re-view those filmsâ€™ core concerns. This is how great filmmakers build careers: through reinvention, whittling down, abrupt departures, and making all the supposed â€śdetoursâ€ť seem, in retrospect, like ready signposts along a clearly delimited path.