28 August 2009

Summer Hours

Written & Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Full credits from IMDb

Assayas’ enchanting and elegiac study of mortality and objects, Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été), is a film about artifacts—about the significance and essential value of our precious possessions. The film takes as its subject the countryside home of a long-dead artist and the pricey to priceless paintings, furniture and other various objets d’art that fill it. His niece, Hélène (Edith Scob), cares for the property when the film opens, but she is on the verge of death herself, leaving her three children—Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—to decide the fate of the estate. Those three actors have a remarkable conviviality; combined with Sandrine Mauvezin’s thorough set dressings—cluttered old houses; cramped, book-lined apartments—Summer Hours has a deeply lived-in quality, which helps lend authenticity to its emotions.

Those emotions reveal themselves subtly; despite the occasional on-screen bickering between the siblings, Summer Hours is a calming film—the first word that came to mind after leaving the theater was “lovely”; it’s just a lovely film—largely set around bowls of fruit and al fresco lunch tables. The squabbling that does occur emerges largely from the siblings’ disparate philosophies on what to do with Great Uncle’s things: Frédéric has a nostalgic reverence for them, particularly two Corots, and wants them to stay in the family; Adrienne and Jérémie, taking after their mother—“no need to become keepers of this tomb,” she tells her children before she dies, of this “bric-a-brac from another era”—see the pieces as saleable, as equity. (Not coincidentally, both pro-sale siblings no longer call France home, which suggests something about a globalizing world with no more room for wistful, narrow-mindedly ethnocentric Francophiles.)

There’s tragedy here; while Hélène’s children view some individual items with tender hearts, the collection taken together boasts a value that transcends mere sentimentality. Imbued with memories and bits of a person, they come to represent, if not embody, a family and its shared lives. They’re “life’s residue,” as meaningful as a memory, a photograph, a headstone. The film’s opening shot, a flickering image of the house—and the subsequent Mizoguchian tracking shot of kids and dogs running down trails and climbing trees—sets the misty-eyed tone, the pining for the bygone that carries through the film.

But Assayas is no naïve romantic; for him, objects possess a dual function: they are meant to be used, but also valued. Statues should be displayed, even if they run the likelihood of smashing into pieces. At the end of the film, we see unsupervised and promiscuous teens at the house, boozing to blasting hip-hop without regard for the history of the grounds on which they’re partying; it’s equally dismaying when, right before that scene, we see many of the house’s valuables isolated from their functions, stored behind the velvet ropes and display cases of the Musee d’Orsay. Both approaches get it wrong: the house is meant to be lived in but not debauched; the items are meant to be utilized, not admired from behind glass. Our heirlooms are meant neither to be ignored nor revered.

When Frédéric allows the house’s longtime keeper to take something as a memento, she chooses a simple vase because she thinks it’s “ordinary”; unbeknownst to her, it turns out to one of the collection’s more valuable pieces. Assays suggests that the only real value objects possess is the one we assign to them—so what’s regrettable here isn’t that precious things have lost their value. It’s that, in this crass world of mass-produced sneakers, we’ve stopped assigning any value to the meaningful things we own. Desks are no longer passed down from generation to generation; we make desks to be thrown away. The real tragedy is that snipped thread of historical continuity and consequent nihilism. Grade: A-

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