Summer Hours Movie Review
The silver-haired matriarch of this subdued clan -- the antithesis of the tribe of lunatics in A Christmas Tale -- is Hélène (Edith Scob), a one-time art-world staple. Her three children are just about as different as three siblings can be: There's flighty Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer of sorts living in New York; young and ambitious Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who works for Puma Sneakers in Peking; and nostalgic Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest, an economist who doesn't believe in economics. Sentimentalist and stubborn nationalist that he is, Frédéric laughs his mother off when she tells him he will have to sell the house when she dies, insisting the house will stay in the family.
Apparently unaware of the costs of a two-child household in China, not to mention a decent one-bedroom in New York, Frédéric comes to his siblings months later, after their mother has passed on, expecting them to agree not to sell the place. Adrienne and Jérémie see the house and their heirlooms as a way to leverage their future, whether with a five-year contract in China or a new fiancé. Seeing as majority rules, they all begin to take on the task of deciding what will be auctioned off and what will become donations to the Musée d'Orsay, who not-so-coincidentally commissioned Assayas' film.
The love remains between the siblings, but they themselves have become disconnected, mirrored in their feelings on how to deal with the house. Part globalization allegory and part deeply Gallic art-drama, Summer Hours is more than a little talky and filmed, by the great Eric Gautier, with the lilting beauty of a sun-toasted countryside picnic. It at times is reminiscent of Rohmer's Claire's Knee. Assayas' film has more than a few lofty questions concerning art, nostalgia, and the national culture but he understands that ultimately history and culture are far more personal than one can imagine. If the fight is with the Neanderthal who roams the hallways of the d'Orsay on his cellphone, the battle is over and Frédéric has lost. If it's for his daughter to remember where she comes from, well, the final scene speaks for itself.
Hours drifts, bounces, and ultimately comes down exactly where it wants to, like a well-rehearsed piano concerto, and it is perhaps the prolific Assayas' most precise work in over a decade. Each performance emanates well past the ideologies the characters take. Renier and Binoche give vulnerability to the rampaging plow of progress, him with his financial woes and her all nerve-wracked with pending nuptials on the horizon. To Adrienne and Jérémie, the entire world has been appraised (by America or by China) and has a tag on it, and though they have minor moments of sentimentality, they accept that money is real; nostalgia doesn't buy anything. A moment near the end sees their long-time maid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) heartbreakingly wandering through the pillaged shell that remains of the house she tended for years. Was the house better for its memories and history than for a new family with a new history? For Frédéric, the question is far more open-ended: What's the use of a classic armoire if you can't open it up and find your son's toy plane in it once in awhile?
Aka L'heure d'été.