We continue our week-long look at under-appreciated films with Oliver Assayas’ brilliant 2008 film Summer Hours. If this column ever encourages you to do anything, let it be this: do not rent Summer Hours. Track down the Criterion Collection DVD and buy it, watch it multiple times, and treasure it.
Summer Hours works on so many levels and has such multiform meaning that it will repay repeated viewings. Though on one level a family drama, I would be hard pressed to find a more effective film in exploring the personal connection between art and human beings. It is also a profoundly moving meditation on what is probably the passing of a centuries-long Western tradition which is losing ground to globalism, multi-culturalism and rapacious technology.
The film opens with a birthday party – the 75th birthday of Helene at her rambling country manor. She has three children – one daughter in New York, a son in China and another son in nearby Paris. Helene was the niece of a world-famous artist, and her home (a work of art itself) is filled with priceless antiques and masterworks of art. Helene tries to engage her children in the necessity to make plans for her eventual death – what happens to this beautiful home and the art collection once she is gone?
Only Frederic (a deeply touching Charles Berling) is willing to have the discussion, despite how uncomfortable it makes him. He takes her inventory of the treasures in the house (including her celebrated uncle’s desk) – and, in less than a year, Helene is dead.
Frederic assumes his sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoch) and brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) would want to keep the house, but their lives are too far away for such a gesture to be practical. And so, they start the long and heart-breaking task of selling Helene’s house and finding the right homes for her art and antiques.
What follows is a folly of art galleries, museum acquisitions, and international communications between the siblings. The film ends – as it must – with Frederic’s child staying one last weekend in the house with friends. The friends are a cross-section of contemporary Europe: multi-racial, poly-lingual and hooked into portable technology. The surroundings mean little to them, but, as the rock music blares, a new generation creates new memories and the world moves on.
Summer Hours is a film of grace notes, each more delicate and wrenching than the other. In one sequence, Frederic and his wife visit the museum which now displays Helene’s desk – removed from the house and without his aunt and family associations, it is merely a cold piece of wood. He cannot connect his family memories to the accompanying museum text explaining why the desk is important.
Perhaps the most affecting (and fascinating) scene involves Eloise, the family’s cook and general house-help. Told she could take anything she wants from the house, she selects the vase that Helene always used for fresh flowers.
But here is the wonderful paradox that Assayas plays with throughout the film – Eloise didn’t want to take advantage of the offer, so she took a simple vase that Helene used all the time: it was filled with memories of her. However, unbeknownst to Eloise, the vase is an extremely valuable antique and art piece. Where, Assayas asks, does the value lie? In an accomplished work of art, or in the personal memories of the vase itself?
Though critically hailed as something close to a masterpiece and the winner of several prestigious awards, Summer Hours played in a few scattered ‘art houses’ in the US before sinking without a trace. I could line up the usual culprits – it’s in French with subtitles, the characters are allowed to be intelligent, and the film assumes that viewers are engaged enough to think about what’s happening. These things would seem to be killers at the American box office, which queued up instead for the dreary, interminable and ridiculous Batman Dark Knight film.
Or, to give US audiences the benefit of a doubt, perhaps the problem with the film was its sad, wistful message of loss. Assayas delivers a melancholy look at what is probably the passing of the dominance of the Western world as we who are currently adults know it, and that kind of elegy does not sit well with a culture that always thinks it’s moving forward, whether it is standing still or not.