Family Plot

05.08.09

Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes. Production still. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche). Photo: Jeannick Gravelines.


AFTER THE FREAKY, FAR-OUT, FREQUENTLY DYSTOPIC PLEASURES of Olivier Assayas’s last three films—Connie Nielsen clad in leather fetish wear in the Hellfire Club in demonlover (2002), Maggie Cheung as a transnational rock star struggling to stay off junk and be reunited with her young son in Clean (2004), and Asia Argento diddling herself before jetting off to Hong Kong and intrigue in Boarding Gate (2007)—the director returns home for his twelfth fiction film, to a bourgeois French family trying to negotiate the past, present, and future, in the mournful Summer Hours. As in the triptych that precedes it, Summer Hours is a film about globalization—though, this time, serving not as a springboard for genre tinkering but as the source of a deep melancholy and anxiety over the state of French history and culture.

Assembled on a lush summer day for the seventy-fifth birthday of their widowed mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), three siblings—Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), plus the brothers’ spouses and broods—celebrate what will be their last family gathering at their once-beloved, magic ancestral home in the Île-de-France. Much to the discomfort of Frédéric, an economist in Paris and the only child still living in France, the formidable matriarch discusses what should be done after her death with the house and the collection of Art Nouveau treasures, Redon panels, and Corot paintings it contains. The solemn discussion ends as everyone scrambles to catch flights: Adrienne, a designer, is headed back to New York, and Jérémie and his family are returning to Shanghai, where he works as a technical supervisor at a Puma factory.

Hélène dies, off-screen, a few months after this reunion, leaving her children to struggle with the best way to honor the past. “The house no longer means much to me—France, either,” Adrienne candidly admits, a sentiment shared by Jérémie. Frédéric, the eldest, and the one who agonizes the most over the questions of legacy and heritage, finally agrees with his siblings to put the house on the market and sell their mother’s collection to the Musée d’Orsay. (Summer Hours, like Hou Hsaio-hsien’s luminous 2007 film, Flight of the Red Balloon, was part of an initiative by the museum to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.)

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Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours, 2008. (Trailer.)

In the hands of a less talented, less generous filmmaker, Summer Hours could have easily curdled into a noxious litany of the worries of an extremely privileged group of people. But Assayas’s sincere, complex concern about cultural amnesia—the eroding of a nation’s heritage by the ahistorical, inexorable demands of the international economy—is rendered so deftly that the theme becomes one of larger, less class-specific importance. Summer Hours is also an impeccably observed family study, unimaginable without the remarkable ensemble of actors, led by Berling, who, much as he did in Assayas’s Les Destinées (2000), conveys his character’s anguish through expertly modulated moments of restraint and release. Another collaborator from Les Destinées, cinematographer Eric Gautier, beautifully captures, in the two scenes that bookend Summer Hours, the very look and feel of what the film’s title evokes: sun-dappled, pastoral scenes of indolence and pleasure—moments unblemished by the greasy wheels of commerce.

Summer Hours opens May 15 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.

Melissa Anderson