Summer Hours (2008) dir. Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliet Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier, Edith Scob, Isabelle Sadoyan
Olivier Assayas certainly does not make the same film twice. His credits range from his ode de cinema, “Irma Vep”, his Canadian heroin film, “Clean” and his sleazy corporate thriller “Demon Lover”. “Summer Hours” is a return to unabashed art-house cinema. It arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival already being released in Europe. The film stands little chance of staking a claim on North American audiences other than the discriminating art house cineaste, but as a prestige piece it's a fine example of introspective European cinema.
Assayas sets the film in the world of the educated bourgeois upper class of highly discriminating tastes. The film opens with a birthday celebration for Helene Berthier (Edith Scob). She is the neice of an internationally renowned and long deceased artist, Paul Gauthier. Helene is now the matriarch of huge family of 3 children and numerous grandchildren. When Helene dies, she bequeaths a large country home and an extensive collection of artwork, which is much sought after by numerous museums.
Frederic (Charles Berling), the eldest son, feels the pressure to hold onto and maintain the estate so their grandkids can one day enjoy the same fruits they experienced. But since Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in the New York and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) lives in the China, they both vote to sell the property. The majority wins and so we slowly watch as the appraisers dismantle a century of family treasures, for the sake of money and convenience.
“Summer Hours” forces us and the characters to put a value of our memories. The artwork of Gauthier is treated as part of the family – the legacy of which contributed to education and successful careers of the entire family. Even though audiences may not identify with the dilemma of cashing in a fortune of priceless art, the loss of one's tangible memories will resonate with everyone.
Assayas makes a conscious effort to suppress all conflict and visualizing his character’s emotions. In fact there’s almost no conflict whatsoever. The biggest decision made in the film is the vote to decide what do with the property. Frederic, Adrienne and Jeremie debate this after dinner. Each sibling states their case, and as mentioned, the vote to sell wins out. Frederic respects his brother and sister’s decisions. There’s no malice or scheme to be had, no backstabbing or ulterior motives. Assayas puts the audience into the lives of real people. He lets the audience feels the emotion of their loss. No tears are shed, no anger and drunken speeches. A great representation of this tone is the wonderful tracking shot with the old caretaker Eloise through the empty house after all the artwork has been removed.
This careful and honest approach to the drama comes at a cost though too. It’s uncinematic, undramatic and for many people, for lack of a better word, boring. Since there is only one plot point in the film, we don’t know where the film will end. It doesn’t have a natural conclusion. There’s a series of fade outs in the final 15mins, a no-no, especially when we know there will not be traditional narrative closure. But Assayas does provide thematic closure by staging the wonderful final scene in the house. It’s a subtle bookend to the opening scene and puts into greater perspective the incalculable treasure the Gauthier have sold off. Enjoy.