As one of the characters in the film reminds her family, when a person passes away, their memories and all that which is locked within leaves with them. That is true, but only to a certain degree. Like so much in life, there are many ways to remember people and their legacies, such as the stories they shared and their accomplishments. Yet another can simply be the personal objects they leave behind, which loved ones of the deceased will want to keep for their sentimental value, which can far outweigh whatever monetary value they may possess. There is the odd familial situation in which a great numbers of factors lead to the opposite action, that is, the family having to get rid of everything to take the money. In Olivier Assayas’ drama Summer Hours, siblings Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier respectively) are confronted with this difficult and trying reality after their mother Hélène (Édith Scob) passes away.
Hélène, long divorced from her husband, had been living in the quiet French countryside side in a magnificent house for several years, a house which preserved the great art, furniture and sculpture collection amassed and created by her late brother, their uncle. For many years already Hélène had cherished this beautiful collection and the house itself, but when her children and her grandchildren come visit her one summer afternoon, she takes Frédéric aside and makes it explicitly clear that he doesn’t have to hold old onto any of it after she dies. Taken aback, not only because his own mother is talking about her inevitable death but also because of how casually she is telling him how much he could get for each piece in her collection, Frédéric denies any intention of wanting to sell the house. It, as well as everything inside it, should be kept for the grandchildren when they use it in the summer. It should also be kept for the sake of family heritage and memories. But when Hélène passes away a mere few weeks later, both Adrienne and Jérémie explain that, as much as they love the house, neither one would ever use it due to their respective job and living situations (Adrienne is some kind of designer in New York while Jérémie is employed for a shoe company in China). With the votes 2 against 1, the family proceeds to sell off their inheritance.
I read somewhere that writer and director Oliver Assayas was influenced by many of the Taiwanese new wave directors, most notably Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and I thought I detected some of those cinematic sensibilities in Summer Hours. There is the overall story concerning the selling of this marvellous collection and all the steps required in order to properly execute this plan, but through it all the film feels far more concerned with offering snippets of who these people are how they are coming too grips with the reality of the situation through delicately written and intimately filmed scenes, a technique that the great Hou Hsiao-Hsien (for those familiar with his work) has perfected throughout the years. It really is the individual scenes, those individual moments during which two characters or more will have a conversation and the viewer is privy to hearing their emotions and thoughts on this arduous and difficult time in their lives. Glued together we indeed have a film that offers somewhat of a plot, but it works far better as a character exploration piece than anything driven by a tightly focussed narrative. Each sibling is living a very different life, with two of them not even residing in France anymore, and this plays a major roll in why they make the decision to sell the inheritance. The scene in which the three siblings debate and eventually arrive at the decision to sell the property is one of the best acted, written and filmed scenes I’ve seen so far this year. In that 5 or 6 minute span we the audience are given a very fleshed picture of who each of these people are and how they behave amongst each other; What’s interesting is that despite the reality that their situation is an emotionally trying one, Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie remain quite composed throughout, with only some brief moments indicating that any strain may be afflicting them. Summer Hours shies away from major argument scenes, with brothers and sister at each others throats, something that might have felt too manipulative if in the wrong hands of a particular director. It occurs once, but it feels right in that one scene. Here the characters are sad, but rarely give in to outbursts. The dynamics get intriguing when they begin to collect their thoughts on the possibility that the relation between their mother and uncle may not have been of the healthiest nature. That is, arguably, when their emotions are given the greatest test, when the possibly cruel truth begins to surface.
The acting is very solid all around, with special mention going to Charles Berling as Frédéric and Édith Scob as Hélène, whose only misfortune is that her character must perish after only perhaps 20 minutes of screen time. She radiates with life as Hélène, a woman who recognizes that her time is fast approaching, but moves and talks as if she could keep on going for decades still. Charles Berling’s character Frédéric is the one sibling of the three of whom the viewer sees the most, and he gives a fine, measured performance. Most of the work involved in selling the property rests on his character’s shoulders, meaning that he is, arguably, carrying the heaviest emotional weight in addition to his duties as a father to his own children. Oh, but isn’t Juliette Binoche in this film? Yes she is indeed, but I can’t say that this was her best work. Even when she isn’t firing on all cylinders Binoche is a superior actor to most, but I never felt she was given a whole lot to work with. Her character of Adrienne doesn’t offer much in terms of emotional depth, although there were a few moments of what I like to call ‘Binoche brilliance’. This feels more like Berling’s show than anyone else’s. Lest I forget, Isabelle Sadovan gives an inspired performance as the house maid Éloise, despite rather limited screen time.
Another aspect about the film that gives it a special quality was how it spends time with some of the steps in the auctioning process, from the moment the Musée D’Orsay art experts visit the home to when more experts are sitting at a table discussing the merits of the collection. In fact, one if my favourite scenes in the film is the 5-6 minute sequence when the experts are walked through the house by Frédéric and Adrienne and shown all the lovely goodies. It may offer less character development, but it was nice to know the film was taking some time to show the long process necessary to sell off the inheritance. The camera work during this sequence is also superbly done. Assayas has great control of his shots, making his camera take smooth glides across rooms to follow characters or to observe objects. There were other moments, particularly during conversations between many characters at once (during dinner or in a living room) when the camera had a very dynamic and lively feel to it. It followed the action quickly, but always in a controlled manner. Sometimes a person may be hidden by something else and reappear once the camera had moved out of the way of the object or person blocking them. It sounds really simple on paper and maybe it was also very simply to set up, but it looks very nice on film. It helps that a lot of the film takes place in a private domain in the French countryside, with a lush green surrounding and a marvellous house used as the primary shooting location.
Not every scene works. The film spends a few scenes on Frédéric’s daughter, who has run into some drug problems, and while I acknowledge that it makes the familial dynamics real, I didn’t really have the same emotional investment in that strangely brief storyline. Two of the siblings are awarded their own scenes to finally let out some tears, and each time I felt it to be unnecessary. We knew that they were sad. One of the interesting elements of the film was in fact seeing how these characters were dealing with their thoughts and feelings and to see them burst out in tears felt a bit typical, as if Assayas wanted to remind us that these people also cry, just like the rest of us. But for all intents and purposes, the moments that didn’t impress were far and few between.
While offering little that is out of the ordinary, Summer Hours is still a solid piece of filmmaking. It’s a quiet little film, but one that carries some very well acted and constructed scenes. The notions of family memories, attachments, legacies and what they mean to their inheritors is well handled and given a neat 21st century perspective. I’m pretty sure the film received a very limited release in North America, so either wait for the DVD, or don’t waste another second if you learn that it’s playing in your area.