Families can often provide a false guarantee against loneliness, alienation and hostility. But in a global economy where the world changes faster and people move more often a question arises: May families, their legacies and more or less uncomfortable memories, have a new and important part to play? Olivier Assayas’ carefully observed and subtly played Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) asks us to reassess the qualities of relatives, in all their unpleasantness. Told with a quiet intensity, the story revolves around the aging mother Hélène, her three adult children, and a stately house full of valuable furniture and paintings — all of which belong to Hélène’s late uncle, a famous artist.
Edith Scob does an exquisite job as Hélène, who has a much deeper affection for past things — in a literal sense — than human relations. Her kids — on cue — have more or less disappeared from her life. (It wasn’t like she ever cared, or even noticed, anyway.) Most of her attention has long been directed towards the legacy of her uncle, a painter and collector of late 19th century furniture. She has turned her old villa into a shrine in his honor.
Assayas’ film originated from a commission from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The museum asked several French filmmakers to each direct a short film with a connection to the museum, which has one of the world’s most important collections of late 19th century art and furniture. When the government’s financing for Assayas’ project fell through, the filmmaker and his producer decided to make the film anyway, and — with the museum providing financial and moral support — expanded the idea into a feature film.
The old, elegant furniture and paintings (originals loaned to the production by the museum) therefore function somewhat as characters of their own in the story. The beauty of the objects, combined with Eric Gautier’s impeccable cinematography, makes Summer Hours into a sensual experience. But as the mother in the movie clearly never understands, objects have only a fractional value if the people surrounding them never find any reason to really appreciate them, or each other.
Assayas’ films often tell stories about the displacement and constant migration of people in the global economy. In a world where national costumes are made in China and fish are flown from Europe to Asia to be filleted, and returned to their place of origin for consumption, human beings also tend to move about more. Tellingly, two of the three adult kids in the film have transferred out of France. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) works as a designer in New York, while Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and his family are headed to China to work for an international shoe manufacturer. Their roots have been trimmed, but what have they lost?
But Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest son, has not lost faith in his roots — or in France, or his family, or the house in which they all grew up. When their mother suddenly dies, he takes it for granted that the house and all its precious belongings will stay in the family. He wants his children to be able to stay connected to the place, to strengthen the familial roots that are so clearly vanishing.
But what does a building, and the things inside it, really stand for? Binoche and Renier conclude: Nothing that money can’t buy. They therefore insist in selling the place. They feel the house and its artwork represents problematic memories from a past that’s best left safely behind glass in a museum. A painful confrontation is unavoidable, and an easy solution unlikely — especially in a family where everyone prefers to assume the opinions of the opponents, rather than actually investigate them.
Assayas, fortunately, has no such troubles.
© FIPRESCI 2009