Leaving a Trace
Chloe Lizotte on Juliette Binoche in Summer Hours

As a performer, Juliette Binoche is like water, driven by a responsiveness that is fluid, elemental, and often torrential. In André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous, her breakout, a roiling desperation for autonomy and belonging played across her face while she ping-ponged between two toxic suitors. Her work with Leos Carax and Krzysztof Kieślowski led her to more complex psychologies, plumbing the depths with a vivacity prone to flux. Her shields fracture to betray a dizzying array of emotions, moving within seconds from closed-off, to obstinate, to confused, to hopeless, to elated. In roles that range from anxious bourgeoisie (Caché, Certified Copy), to go-for-baroque (Slack Bay, High Life), to prestige lead (The English Patient, Chocolat), to under-utilized supporting love interest (remarkably, Dan in Real Life), she’s maintained an emotional availability that is constantly surprising and deeply human, all while transcending national cinemas towards a long-lasting global stardom.

It makes sense, then, that one of her most thrilling sustained collaborations has been with Olivier Assayas. He encourages a spontaneity on set to keep the end result fleet and actor-driven: early in his career, he and frequent DP Denis Lenoir adopted a Cassavetes-style setup by affixing lighting to the ceiling, which allowed actors to move freely around the set without artificial constraints. And move freely they do: several of Assayas’s most intimate character studies come to mind in flashes of handheld tracking shots, whether it’s Maggie Cheung roaming the halls of a hotel in a cat-suit in Irma Vep or the bowels of a Chinese restaurant in Clean, or Kristen Stewart wandering an empty, creaky, possibly haunted house in Personal Shopper. The camera, jittering as a daemon might, shadows these characters with an affectionate curiosity, a spirit that is especially evident in the director’s collaborative approach. Personal Shopper flourished from an interest in discovering the character together with Stewart, and Clouds of Sils Maria stemmed from an idea Binoche pitched to Assayas.

Summer Hours, from 2008, is the first of three films that Binoche and Assayas have made together, later followed by Sils Maria and Non-Fiction. Never so seamlessly has Assayas, an astute chronicler of the effects of globalization, woven his observations into an ensemble drama. What might at first seem like an unwieldy allegory—the matriarch of a French family whose legacy is rooted in modernist painting passes away, leaving her three children, dispersed across the globe in commercialized industries, to settle her estate—becomes understated yet urgent, tender yet sharp, due to the naturalism of the performers. It’s telling that the central death occurs off-screen, but that the major narrative turning point is an unpredictable, weaving conversation between the siblings in which assumptions are challenged and stakes are altered. During this scene, the camera seems as though it could drift in any direction.

Here, Binoche plays one of the children, Adrienne, a sly nod to Binoche’s teenage stage name “Juliette Adrienne.” It’s a deliberate surprise when she pops onscreen: the opening minutes of Summer Hours are a continual quest to settle, beginning with a fleet of children running around the pastoral grounds on a scavenger hunt; then moving inside the house to find the family’s housekeeper cooking dinner; soon after which we finally arrive without any fanfare at our main character, Frédéric (Charles Berling), trying to uncork a champagne bottle. Nimbly overloaded with occupants that span generations, the house is established as a site of transience; the very stuff of fast-moving life becomes the subject. When Frédéric walks into the backyard with the champagne—we match cut in the middle of the action, similarly disorienting—we learn that it’s the birthday of his his mother Hélène (Edith Scob). As his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) walks into the frame from another direction, Hélène mentions that she’s happy to be able to see all of her children in one place—“especially Adrienne.” Cut to a previously obscured angle that reveals Binoche, slackened in a lawn chair in a fatigue symptomatic of international travel. Adrienne, an interior goods designer, explains that her home in New York is too far away for her to visit regularly; Frédéric’s wife says that they mostly follow her in the press. This evokes Binoche’s own experience, but the actress steeps it in her character’s sudden brooding: Adrienne drops the subject with a small smile, silently considering the life she built a continent away.

This tension is central to Binoche’s performance as Adrienne: the remembrance of, and potentially her final break with, her childhood home. Binoche’s casting suggests a broader read of her character’s employment in a commercialized creative field, asking us to consider her credentials in both art-house projects and more commercial, largely Anglophone work. Instead of making this into a dichotomy, both Binoche and Assayas are interested in the ways in which their crafts remain the same; acting and filmmaking are so rooted in a moment-to-moment embodiment of the present. Binoche thoughtfully commits herself to the process even when it might seem easy to write some jobs off as paychecks; a film like Dan in Real Life might not be designed as a showcase for her, but even then, she uses limited scenes to build a character subtly grappling with repressed melancholy. In Assayas’s corner, this calls to mind the scene in Clouds of Sils Maria when Binoche and Stewart, playing an actor and her assistant, scope out a sci-fi movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz’s enfant terrible. At drinks afterwards, Stewart’s argument for Moretz’s vitality rings clearest, even as Binoche, hung up on the cartoonish context, nearly laughs her off the screen.

It seems especially cinematic when that emotional accessibility slices through the surrounding setpieces; when the camera captures an unselfconsciousness at odds with a medium rooted in artifice. Assayas, who self-identifies as a modernist filmmaker, wrestles with the possibility of this honesty within art forms that negotiate a global marketplace, from blockbusters to Adrienne’s design work. Summer Hours is a film about the inevitability of movement—of time, of people, of industry—yet also the ways in which human nature strives to avoid long-term variation; how we try to smuggle poignancy into a seemingly inhospitable economic landscape. Adrienne’s current project for a Japanese department store is a line of dinnerware that she hopes will be both “simple and classical”: contemporary silhouettes merged with a traditional sense of timelessness. All the same, her minimalist prototypes seem to lack character.

This conflict comes to the fore when Adrienne rediscovers her family’s silver tea set in the backyard with Hélène. Adrienne cradles the tea tray, embossed with delicately etched lines spanning outwards from the center, and recalls a dream she had about it; even her final art school project was based on various pieces from the set. Binoche’s delivery is soft, as though talking to herself, her eyes fixed on the objects as she drifts into her memories. When Hélène mentions that these pieces will be hers one day, Adrienne whirls around with an exhale, circles their table, then returns Hélène’s gaze with a piercing resignation: “That’s not what I meant.” The significance of the tea set collides with Hélène’s insistence that it is too antique-y to fit into Adrienne’s life—she’d never use it. In turn, Hélène’s own attachment to the set is linked to memories of her beloved uncle, Paul Berthier, a painter whose possessions comprise a substantial fraction of the family estate. Knowing on some level that Hélène is right, Adrienne remains in quiet denial as she clings to the tea set, which seems to hold her own origins. The conversation is equally about Hélène’s inevitable passing, adding a sense of helplessness to Binoche’s restrained delivery: the objects remain, but the life that was breathed into them may be fleeting.

In return, a grieving Adrienne hopes to bring something of her family’s legacy to the United States. As she and her siblings divide up Hélène’s inventory of furniture and art, Adrienne realizes that she wants to try and sell Paul’s notebooks in the United States. “It’s good to get international recognition,” she says. It’s a theme that’s emerged before, and one that perhaps provokes guilt: months earlier, Hélène flew to meet Adrienne in San Francisco for the opening of a significant U.S. retrospective of Paul’s work. Frédéric casually, but sharply, insinuates that the trip may have been the last straw for Hélène’s health, but Adrienne counters that the trip was Hélène’s last triumphant burst of youthful energy. Now, an opportunity emerges for Adrienne to honor Hélène, and perhaps repent, by giving Paul a new stateside life. It’s also a way for her to keep her family history vital within her new culture; she characterizes compiling an auction catalogue for the estate as “leaving a trace.”

But this hope is naïve: Paul’s notebooks would be broken up and sold in pieces if they were to come to the States, and would also change context depending on their owners. Even as Adrienne maintains that she doesn’t feel a connection to France anymore, she also wants to have it both ways in order to keep these disparate parts of her life connected. The pages themselves represent something private, discrete from public recognition and market value. Adrienne must gradually realize the impossibility of keeping these memories intact in the physical world, and we watch this emotional weight overtake Binoche. When Adrienne visits the funeral home soon after Hélène’s death, she moves from numb shock to quietly flowing tears, overpowered even as she tries to keep herself contained. It’s Binoche’s most vulnerable scene in the film, with a wordless clarity and complexity that has become her signature. When her illusions are challenged and her defenses are down, her emotional openness speaks for itself.

So it does during the film’s centerpiece sequence, in which Adrienne casts the decisive vote to sell the house. After Jérémie has laid down his plans to relocate to China, Frédéric’s blood running cold as he feels the tables turning, there’s a pause. Then Adrienne lets out a laugh: full-throated, clear, defusing a bit of tension. She brings up her relationship with an Internet magazine editor from Colorado named James—in a casting move that cinches her entrenchment in America, he’s played by an exceptionally wooden Kyle Eastwood—and announces that they’re planning to get married. Immediately, her siblings begin to tease her, since her first marriage was similarly impulsive; she laughs along with them, basking in that reckless glee. Then Binoche sobers, nonplussed and worn-down as she returns to the point of selling the house: searching for words, she admits that doesn’t want to be the tiebreaker, but resolves that this is “where [she’s] at.” Even as the unreality of the broader context encroaches, Binoche centers her performance in a deeply visceral present, precious in its ephemerality.