Summer Hours opens Friday in select theaters
Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours begins with a series of expert long takes as we see children frolicking on the grounds of a country estate. We're not sure what to expect, but we do know that we want to spend time with these characters in this gloriously civilized French countryside.
As it happens, the estate, which belongs to an aging but elegant Hélène (Edith Scob), occupies a crucial role in the story, which is nothing less than a tale of the decline of traditional, insular France told within the context of a dissolving family. Summer Hours is a mournful yet clear-eyed and unsentimental look at how modern global culture pulls traditional culture apart.
Hélène's three grown children and their families have gathered for her 75th birthday at this run-down but comfortable estate. It was the home of a family ancestor who seems to have been a minor artist of some renown, with a formidable art collection of his own. But tension is present at this birthday party. Two of the children, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) are clearly preoccupied with the demands of their jobs abroad. Adrienne is a well-known designer in New York, and Jérémie, the youngest, is busy with his career selling sneakers in China. It's left to Frédéric (Charles Berling), an author and economics professor in Paris, to be the responsible child, dutifully keeping close to their mother. But it's not a job he's prepared for: When Hélène takes him aside to discuss the posthumous disposition of her estate, he's in too much denial to make a productive conversation of it.
When Hélène indeed passes away, her estate (in both senses) becomes the focus of Summer Hours. The house, and the art that it contains, is a small treasure trove of French cultural patrimony, yet the children, for a variety of reasons, can't keep it intact. Between their limited means, far-flung lives and France's taxes, they have little choice but to sell and donate their inheritance. The film becomes a subtle and elegant exploration of culture and nationalism, the ways in which objects can convey sentimental and symbolic weight, and how they can also burden us.
In the story's tale of the dissolution of an ancient homestead, there's an inevitable echo of Chekhov, particularly The Cherry Orchard. The filmmaker, Olivier Assayas, is no Chekhov—talented though he is—and he wisely avoids garment-rending histrionics. Instead, he hones in on what the country house means to two very different women: Eloise, the aging housekeeper who is now without a job, and Sylvie, Frédéric's bright but rebellious teen daughter. The film's finale, which features the girl, is a tour de force of elegance, subtlety and hope.
Assayas is something of a contradiction: On one hand, his trajectory from film critic to director marks him as a successor to François Truffaut, that most French of filmmakers, but his focus has often strayed beyond the boundaries of his country: His interests in Chinese filmmaking, American music and globalism's dark side have found their way into such films as Irma Vep and Demonlover. However, his best film, 1998's Late August, Early September, was quite French in its study of a group of writers and artists confronting the onset of middle age.
Summer Hours is Assayas' best film since Late August, Early September, and here he returns to the subject of the tribulations of his particular French generation, one coming to terms with global culture and aware that the world of Zola, Cézanne, Maupassant, Colette, Piaf et al. is largely gone. A facsimile of "France" remains as an attraction for tourists, but today's France is also a place of economic stagnation, ethnic strife and high taxes. A lovely country it continues to be, but it's also a place beset with ordinary problems that can make it difficult to live there.