Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling, Edith Scob, Isabelle Sadoyan. (2008, NR, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 12, 2009
When we look at our lives, we tend to regard the things we accumulate as representative of lives well- or ill-spent. Be they possessions of monetary value (as they are in Summer Hours) or sentimental treasures (as they also are in Summer Hours), these objects become part of our self-definition, our sense of personal history, our talismans of remembrance. We know these objects are just things, that memory is stored internally, and that self-worth only comes from within. Yet these things have a primacy in our lives, whether or not we choose to accept their presence. The French writer-director Assayas, who is best-known internationally for such transgressive genre-benders as Irma Vep and Demonlover, has surprisingly shifted gears with Summer Hours and made a work of uncommonly lyrical humanism. The whole movie basks in the dappled light of life experienced in the present and memories rebelling against the inevitable erasures of time. Much of this family drama takes place at the country home of matriarch Hélène (Scob). After the death of her husband, Hélène lived there as a companion to her uncle, a famous artist, and raised her three children there as well. The house is stuffed with valuable art objects – topping the list are two paintings by Corot and furniture by Majorelle – and the ample grounds have been home to more than a few childhood treasure hunts. The first third of the movie is given over to a 75th-birthday celebration and visit from her now grown and scattered children – and their children. Jérèmie (Renier) is a manufacturing executive who resides in Hong Kong with his wife and three kids. Adrienne (the ever extraordinary Binoche) is a globe-hopping designer who lives in America. Frédèric (Berling), an economics professor in Paris, is Hélène’s only child who has remained in France, thus it is he whom she appoints as her executor. During this gathering she takes Frédèric aside to familiarize him with her prepared lists of the home’s inventory and to moreover stress that the worth of these objects lies not in their financial value but rather in the memories and reflections they evoke. They are more her memories than theirs, however, and she urges him to sell them all after her passing. Sure enough, the next time we see the clan is when they gather for her funeral. Although Frédèric is certain the siblings will want to maintain the home for future generations to enjoy, Jérèmie and Adrienne have other needs. As the siblings work through the disposition of their mother’s things, none of the caricatures of greedy relatives or self-centered squabblers arise. The movie becomes a lovely example of the individual ways in which we all work through our passages from the past into the present. Assayas’ camera glides dexterously among the family members, uniting them in space even as the objects they share begin to scatter. Summer Hours is a lovely rumination on the meaning of things, but one that remains rooted in its human subjects rather than the inanimate objects that are more easily graspable.