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  • 12A
  • Drama, Family
  • 2008
  • 102 mins

Summer Hours

Summer Hours

Synopsis

The diaspora of a family is accompanied by the dispersal of its treasured legacy in this French ensemble drama from Olivier Assayas, starring Juliette Binoche

About

"Come on, let's find the treasure!" exclaim the children as they while away the summer hours playing an elaborate orienteering game in the vast garden of a country estate - little realising that there are altogether more real treasures to be found indoors. By the time Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours is over, viewers will be left to ponder whether the day-to-day living of a family, or the physical legacy it leaves behind, has the greater value.

The occasion for the treasure hunt is a family reunion at the home of matriarch Hélène (Scob) in celebration of her seventy-fifth birthday. Ever since the death of her beloved uncle Paul years before, Hélène has surrounded her life with his collected artworks and art deco furniture, and has dedicated her autumn years to preserving his memory in a book and occasional lectures. Now, with her own health beginning to decline and her three grown-up children with lives and families of their own, her thoughts are turning to what will happen to the house and its contents once she is gone.

Not long afterwards, Hélène has indeed passed away and her three heirs meet to discuss what their mother referred to as "the residue". The eldest, Paris-based economist Frédéric (Berling) wants the collection to remain intact as a legacy for the whole family. Jérémie (Renier) is now living in China and sees little point in maintaining a French country house and art collection from which he is unlikely to benefit, and to which he, like his long-dead father, never felt particularly attached in the first place.

Adrienne (Binoche), working from New York, agrees with Jérémie, even if as a designer she has drawn some inspiration from the family's artistic side. And so the collection is dispersed, the house put up for sale and Héléne's devoted housekeeper Éloïse (Sadoyan) gradually forgotten.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas is not averse to a bit of globe-trotting exotica, as the cyber-fetish material of Demonlover (2002) and the erotic thrills of Boarding Gate (2007) have amply demonstrated, but with Summer Hours he, like his characters, appears to be returning home to the very roots of classic French cinema - before, no doubt, heading out once again into more internationalist terrains.

The film is an insistently subtle exploration of the connections between art and life. Developments are measured not in individual characters but across different generations, the division of some artworks is offset by the restoration of others, and even the melodramatic opportunities afforded by siblings squabbling over an inheritance have been studiously toned down in favour of a quieter, more reflective account of the way a family's internal conflicts are inherited and transformed by each new set of children even as they are inscribed in its exhibited (or buried) treasures.

The last use of Héléne's villa before it is to be claimed by its new owners is as the venue of a student party for Frédéric's daughter Sylvie (De Lencquesaing) and her friends. The computer mixer, loudspeakers and reefers make for an incongruous sight in the now bare-walled old house but the final sequence captures perfectly the melancholic sense of a past being forever left behind and a related future being newly discovered. Life goes on, memory abides in mysterious ways and there is always another summer.

Summer Hours features impressive performances, not just from the big-name leads but also from the more marginal characters, with Dominique Reymond and Valérie Bonneton in particular expertly fleshing out the two brothers' wives, and the great differences between them. If the film has a fault, it is that its great restraint never seems far from slightness.

Everything here is as painstakingly observed and skilfully rendered - but also as static and flat - as one of Paul's sketches - and once, less than a third of the way through the film, Héléne has eloquently articulated to Eloïse the themes of stories lived and objects loved and lost, the only place left to go is to dramatise in greater detail what has already been said several times. It is not that 100-or-so minutes is too long - but Summer Hours would probably have been none the worse for being a short film instead. Nuance is without doubt a virtue but so too is economy.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Alice De Lencquesaing, Juliette Binoche, Emile Berling, Kyle Eastwood, Charles Berling, Edith Scob, Valérie Bonneton, Jérémie Renier, Isabelle Sadoyan, Dominique Reymond
  • Director: Olivier Assayas
  • Screen Writer: Olivier Assayas
  • Producer: Marin Karmitz, Charles Gilibert, Nathanaël Kamitz
  • Photographer: Eric Gautier
  • Composer: Nicolas Cantin, Olivier Goinard

In a nutshell

Exploring the different facets of an extended family's inheritance, Olivier Assayas' film is beautifully observed and finely nuanced - but its relative slightness suggests that less need not always end up being more.

by Anton Bitel

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