Wednesday, January 6, 2010
As much as the French might be ensconced at the forefront of cinema, likely for many years to come if until the collapse of the artform (or humanity; whichever comes first), they have their trends as readily identifiable as the "Sundance indie" or the "Oscar-bait message movie." Summer Hours has "French movie" written all over it: it's a drama concerning a family that falls prey to the shifting tides of social mores, gently but forcibly pulling apart by the seams until general gaps form in the fabric. That the film emerges as a unique, arresting portrait is but the latest proof of director Olivier Assayas' position at the top of contemporary French cinema, alongside Arnaud Desplechin, Catherine Breillat and a number of other auteurs who continue to take advantage of France's artist-friendly society to craft some of the most interesting films on the market.
Summer Hours opens on a palatial cottage in the French countryside, a well-worn home surrounded by lush vegetation; indeed, the place is such a part of the land that plants seem to have fused into the brick and mortar in a way that accentuates the beauty of the architecture. The house belongs to Hélène, a 75-year-old matriarch who welcomes her children and grandkids for her birthday. Hélène is still vibrant and witty, and she looks barely in her 60s (the actress playing her, Edith Scob, is 72). Sharp enough to know that her vitality may be fleeting, she discusses practical matters with her eldest son, Frédéric, about her wishes for the estate after her death. The house belonged to her uncle, a renowned painter, and she meticulously maintained its look after his death, the curator of his legacy.
Yet she understands that her children have lives of their own. Frédéric (Charles Berling) lives in France, but Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) works and lives in Hong Kong with his wife and three children, while Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in the States with her American fiancé. She details which objects should be donated to the Musée d'Orsay (who produced the film and lent the actual furniture and paintings for the house) and tells Frédéric to sell the rest and divide it among himself and his siblings. After a lifetime spent preserving her uncle's legacy, she no longer cares if the house and its antiques are sold, as she'll be dead. The family leaves, and the bright green of the outdoor party turns to a muted blue, Hélène left in her now-spacious and hollow mansion, alone but for the housekeeper Eloise; in that moment, the spirited matriarch looks suddenly old and fading, as much an antique as the chair she sits in.
Less than a year later, Hélène is dead. The kids gather back in France to handle the funeral and to discuss their mother's effects. Frédéric wants to keep the house, but Jérémie and Adrienne move to sell; both are moving permanently to their new countries, and they need the money. Adrienne in particular has spent so much time traveling that she's outgrown not only the home but France itself. Adrienne doesn't care for Jérémie's line of work -- an executive at the Asian division of Puma -- though she also designs shoes and is as much a slave to the corporate world as he is. Frédéric, an economist, understands his siblings' financially motivated decision and resigns himself to losing his old home and all the childhood memories within it.
Naturally, one's memories don't die when one loses trinkets, but Assayas uses Summer Hours to examine the way ordinary objects become something important, be it timeless art or an emotionally resonant part of someone's life. Adrienne and Jérémie blithely take stock of the artifacts to be sold, questioning their potential value and generally speeding the process along to return to their normal lives. They are modern people, connected to the business that employs them instead of outdated ideas of settlement.
It's a typically American point of view, and the characters of Summer Hours subtly reflect a mindset that has become as much American as French. Adrienne lives in New York with her American boyfriend, and the children of the brothers are, like all youngsters, we're told, infatuated with American fads. Jérémie represents the speed with which people can adapt now to new environments: set to move permanently to Peking after living in Hong Kong for years, mentions that his daughter will spend a term in San Fransisco, the city where Asian immigrants traditionally landed; his daughter not only wants to see the America she's fascinated with but she'll arrive more as a Chinese visitor instead of a French one, vaguely reminiscent of the pure-French Arielle referred to as "La Chinoise" in Kings and Queen.
Assayas suggests that the old family unit, or at least this one, is dying, but Summer Hours is not a dark film, nor a melodramatic one: everyone in the family loves each other, and their conversations are realistic and natural. When Adrienne tells her brothers and their wives that she's engaged, they all laugh about her disastrous first marriage without needlessly relating stories and facts they already know. Frédéric's disappointment with his siblings (and, later, his children) is visible but does not lead to anything more than a few gently heated debates.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review that the most recent American film that approaches Summer Hours' level of familial honesty is Rachel Getting Married, a comparison I agree with albeit with one caveat: Summer Hours, unlike Rachel, is not about the closeted skeletons of a family. While Demme's film ultimately emerged as a fair and humanistic portrait of a family that sets aside its tremendous issues for a moment of bliss, Summer Hours never digs up dirt on its characters. The siblings discuss their mother's fascination with her uncle and ponder the true nature of their relationship, but they do so with casual curiosity, and when a definitive answer is provided it is not a plot device but a touching insight into Hélène.
The matter-of-fact believability of Assayas' script is aided immeasurably by his direction, which finds that perfect balance his colleague Arnaud Desplechin has found, between blatantly cinematic camera movement and placement and spur-of-the-moment realism. The director seems to know the right way to frame every shot, from static long shots to hand-held movement into the family's inner circle; Assayas uses his docufictional camerawork -- like Desplechin and, in Rachel, Demme -- to make us a part of the story, his camera movements sometimes fast but never jarring or distracting us from this microcosmic family.
Two moments of the film particularly caught my eye. Adrienne tells her mother in the beginning that her tastes are too modern for the old art in the house, yet she fixates on a silver tea platter and justifies her attraction to it by stating that beauty is beauty. Later, as appraisers comb the house for knickknacks, she finds the tray and holds it to her elated, unwilling to part with this one trinket. It shows how even the most modern and flighty of individuals can assign psychic weight to an object just as readily as more sedentary people, and even if she ignores the rest of the beautiful art in the house she's acknowledged something of its grace. This moment finds a distant echo in the end, where Eloise visits the house one last time before Frédéric's daughter Sylvie hosts a party there to bid her grandma's home farewell. Seen heretofore as a disaffected, bored youngster, she confides in her boyfriend how much she'll miss the place and wonders if she's losing a part of her childhood with it. These moments prevent Summer Hours from becoming a tedious lament by just some cranky old man railing against technology and modernization; instead, it demonstrates that some part of us will always create sentimental touchstones for our identity, and the advent of modern technology simply allows us to do so wherever we want, and it is that distinction that makes Assayas one of the most perceptive and interesting directors of our time.