Summer Hours

So few of us realize how complex the nexus that forms us as people is. Not only are we influenced by the people we know, but by people and entire generations, societies, and cultures that we don’t know, and perhaps will never know. But it’s not just the things living that informs our lives, but the non-living as well. If you picture your life as a child, you can’t help but picture it in places filled with objects. Maybe those objects were monetarily worthless, but incredibly important to you if only because of the memories attached to it. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who are recipients of antiques that actually do have tremendous monetary value. But even if you are one of the latter, what do you do? Do you hold on to it as a piece of personal history? Is it a part of you at all? Do you feel any connection to it? Is any sense of memory or heritage more valuable than the money? These are the topics that Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours explores.

I hope Jack Eason won’t mind if I borrow his plot synopsis: With its opening scenes we are introduced to three generations of the same family. Most senior we have Héléne (Edith Scob) who has devoted her life to preserving the memory and estate of her uncle, a respected artist of the name Paul Berthier. She has kept the house as he left it and lovingly maintained the various items he collected, many now valuable art pieces in their own right. It is in this home that Héléne’s three children were raised: the eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), the only child still living in France; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), an art designer for a Japanese firm working out of Manhattan and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who, seizing on financial opportunity, now lives with his wife and three young children in Beijing. The third generation incorporates Frédéric’s two teenagers, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling). As a final strand to the fabric of the family we have Héléne’s long-serving and frank housekeeper, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan).

It would be a cliché to say that it’s not what’s said in Summer Hours that’s important, but what’s unsaid, yet this is definitely a film where we’re provoked to sense the suppressed emotions seething just under the surface of the frequently banal conversations. Dialogue that is superficially concerned with the method of splitting up belongings, selling the house, dodging the estate tax, etc. is really concerned with the characters’ attachments to their past. Of the three children, Frédéric is the most sentimental, the one who had his heart most set on inheriting the house and passing it down to his children. But even he is unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to retain his beloved Corot paintings. Adrienne and Jérémie have more obviously moved on, too entrenched in their present and future to preserve the past.

Jack Eason mentioned Ozu when analyzing this film, but while Summer Hours is certainly concerned with the passage of time (a classic theme in Japanese art), it’s more interested in the memorial ties that bind people to the past. The time line that runs through generations seems to function like a complex zipper; it moves through people’s lives, connecting them to each other for a period. Once it’s left, memories are what maintain that connection. But, as the line slips further and further into the future, those ties seem to slowly erode, allowing the past the disperse in both real and imagined memory like a bursting firework. In observing three generations, Assayas has really offered a rich depiction of this phenomenon.

For Héléne, the memory of Paul Berthier is still alive, and all of her belongings—indeed, even the house itself—speak to his lingering presence. This is the root of the film’s conflict and it suggests an incredibly full history between the two. Yet it’s the contrast between that suggested history and what we’re shown (and told) that provides the film’s pervasive sense of loss. What’s left of Paul Berthier and his life with Héléne are mere vestiges, shards of what once must have been a thriving life, like the broken statue that’s alluded to more than once. Berthier’s presence is conspicuous by its absence, but it’s very much the haunting spirit that stalks the film’s every frame.

The perspective of the three children brings the film more down to our eye level. Assayas certainly spends the majority of time with them, either in isolation or together, and it’s here that we observe the systematic breaking away from the past. For them, while their life with their mother was very real, it’s now just a memory. The value of the possessions vary based on their personal attachment to them. Frédéric loves the Corot’s, but seems less interested in everything else, Adrienne loves the tea set, but is likewise indifferent to most of it. For Frédéric it becomes more about the desire to pass something on rather than preserving a memory that belongs more to his mother than to him.

But it’s really in the grandchildren that Assayas makes his strongest point. For the majority of the film they’re pushed to the margins, little more than the pixies that sprout around the edges of the frame. But Assayas bookmarks the film with them; in the first scene, they’re playing a treasure hunting game. But, in the last, Sylvie, Frédéric’s daughter, is having a party at the house. This is the first moment in the film that feels thoroughly rooted in the present, with its loud music, dancing kids, and breathless energy. Assayas’ camera matches it, using the film’s only examples of shaky cam. But as Sylvie retreats further out onto the property’s ground, she stops to note how Berthier had painted a young woman from this angle. At this moment, Sylvie, as well as us, get to experience the most distant sense of intangible loss—that of lives lead by people who were connected to you through life, rather than by memory and death. As Assayas says in an interview on the film, we realize that Sylvie understands something that even the parents didn’t.

Technically, the film is a monument of grace and professionalism. I was somewhat surprised, given Assayas’ most noticeable influences, that he moved the camera as much as he did, yet he does so gracefully, well orchestrating the multi-perspectives during the conversations. The performances should all be praised for their understated naturalism. I’m an admitted fan, but Juliette Binoche turns in yet another outstanding performance of a difficult character, as her Adrienne is forced to hold her feelings in even more than the others. If I have any complaints on this level it’s only that Assayas’ method veers dangerously close to being dull and drab rather than graceful and understated. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the film is emotionally restrained to the point of being apathetic. Directors like Ozu and Hou may prefer patient observance over melodrama, but they still manage to deliver emotional gut punches, even if obliquely.

Overall, Summer Hours is a success, even if I feel it’s been slightly overrated by the critics. More than anything, I admire its multifaceted portrayal of a fascinating theme that doesn’t get tackled often enough. Perhaps more than even Héléne, her children, or her grandchildren, the housekeeper, Éloïse, provides the real emotional backbone of the film. Whey the others sit and actively engage in discussion, deciding what to do, she quietly goes about her business, keeping watch on the house and its belongings. In one of the most subtly emotional scenes she tells Frédéric, perhaps ironically, that she forgets how hard it must be on him and the others, since they’re truly family. But it’s Éloïse that Assayas brings back to the empty house, to explore it from the outside. In a shot that was reminiscent of the magical one in Ugetsu, Assayas follows her movements on the outside from a camera inside the house, documenting the haunting, empty space along with her sadness. Unlike in Ugetsu, there’s no magical restoration here, and it’s left up to Éloïse to go and put the flowers in the vase—afterall, what is an empty vase without flowers?—on Héléne’s grave.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

2 Responses to Summer Hours

  1. maz89 says:

    Your review makes me want to see the film again. I remember quite liking it when I first saw it. I think my biggest problem with it was that some scenes just left me emotionally cold and distant. I gave it a 7.5 IIRC.

  2. Jonathan Henderson says:

    I also gave it a 7.5 and rounded it up to a 4/5.

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