Saturday, March 24, 2012

Overlooked Gems #27: Summer Hours

Grade: 85 (A-)

Over the past twenty years, French director Olivier Assayas has quietly built up a reputation in certain critical circles as being one of the finest directors currently working in world cinema. A former film critic for the influential film criticism magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Assayas brings great knowledge and appreciation of film’s past, present, and future to each frame without losing sense of how to tell a story with dynamic visuals. He has a great love for cinema from all parts of the world, be it Europe, Asia, or America. While he’s known for clever genre exercises/deconstructions like Irma Vep and Demonlover, Assayas nonetheless proved versatility in writing and directing 2008’s Summer Hours, an intimate family drama that nonetheless displays serious filmmaking chops.

Helene (Edith Scob), the matriarch of a French family, has died. She leaves behind an extensive art collection (most of it from her uncle, a famous painter in his time), a house, and three children.  Eldest son Frederic (Charles Berling), who lives in France, wishes to keep the house and the art collection intact to share with future generations of his family. Middle child Adrienne (Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche) lives in New York with her American boyfriend (Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son) and has no real attachment to the art, her old home, or France. Youngest son Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) lives and works in China, has no plans to return to France again, and needs the money from the house and art collection to support his family. Through passive-aggressive arguments and half-hearted attempts to please each other, these siblings realize something: they don’t like each other very much.

Assayas expertly splits Summer Hours into three distinct acts. In act one, Helene tries to prepare her children for her death. She knows that she won’t live too much longer and wants to make things as easy as possible, but her knowledge that most of her family doesn’t have the same attachment to the past doesn’t get through to Frederic. In act two, the siblings react to their mother’s death- this was what they had in common, and now that’s gone. Frederic has an idealized portrait of his mother, where Adrienne and Jeremie acknowledge her romantic relationship with her uncle. Frederic is crushed by this knowledge and the knowledge that he’s losing what matters to him. In act three, after the sale and the departure of Adrienne and Jeremie, Frederic deals with his intelligent teenage daughter’s brush with the law and the art collection’s relocation to a museum.

The film is delicately directed by Assayas, who brings lush, flowing tracking shots that open up what could have been a static drama. Much credit must also be given to Assayas’ wonderfully subtle screenplay and the terrific performances by the three leads (particularly Binoche, one of the finest actresses in the world). The film is very talky, and the second act goes on a bit long with scenes that aren’t terrible in and of themselves but which bring the momentum of an already deliberately paced film to a halt. It would have been best had Assayas cut some of the scenes following the decision to sell the house and collection.

These are minor complaints, however, for what's otherwise a rich, beautiful portrait of the ever-changing nature of art, culture, and French identity. The matriarch of the family knows that with her death the world will lose stories, secrets, and a sense of the past, but only one of her children (the one who lives locally) cares about this. The others have their own lives to live in other countries, and they can’t live in the past. As Frederic looks on at his mother’s collection in the museum, he notes the loss of context and historicity when it’s been moved from it’s original home, but what can you do. And the daughter’s final scene, at a teen raucous party before her grandmother’s house is sold, sums it all up nicely: yes, it’s sad to leave the past behind, and we’ll lose certain memories. But life goes on.

NEXT WEEK’S OVERLOOKED GEM: Another Olivier Assayas film, 2010’s five-and-a-half hour opus Carlos.

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