It is in part a story about things of weight, a property, a house, the objects amassed inside it, some of which are cultural artifacts of immense value, some purely functional yet shot through with significance for those who’ve handled them, enjoyed them, disliked them, known them in some way. It’s about, to paraphrase one of the characters, the residue of a life with its memories and its secrets. It’s about the burden of inheritance. An elderly woman leaves her three adult children with items to put in order—that pretty much the gist of the story here. But it says a lot about Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) that it both opens and closes with children scampering through the woods, whether in the midst of a treasure hunt or traipsing along the bridge to adulthood, on the cusp of some tender new sensual awakening. The presence of youth along its perimeter imbues this fundamentally adult tale with unmistakable lightness, as do the gliding camerawork and the naturalness of the marvelous cast’s collective presence. Such lightness is finally the only method of approaching material so brimming with emotional complexity.
Olivier Assayas is a filmmaker of special dexterity. He makes films that are boldly audacious and films that are quietly arresting, films that are international and cool and films that are local and intimate. Irma Vep and demonlover roughly fall into the former category, Summer Hours very much into the latter. Prompted in part by a commission from the Musee d’Orsay—who previously produced Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon—the siblings at its centre are diasporic enough to reflect Assayas’ global sensibility, but the setting and the themes are thoroughly invested in home and heritage. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an economist living in Paris with his family. He’s just published an iconoclastic book yet his instincts are firmly rooted in tradition, in what can be passed from one generation to another. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) by contrast is a designer who favours bright colours and crisp modern simplicity. She lives in New York (and is so entrenched in Americaness she’s actually marrying Clint Eastwood’s son). Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) has roamed the farthest of the three, working as a supervisor for Puma in China and is now in the costly process of moving his wife and three kids there to start a new life. When the film opens the siblings share a rare reunion with their mother Hélène (Edith Scob) to celebrate her 75th birthday. In the midst of the gathering Hélène will take Frédéric aside to go over some of her house’s inventory for the umpteenth time, the Corot paintings and Louis Majorelle desk, and the notebooks and sketches of great uncle Paul Berthier, whose work is still sought after and who may or may not have had an affair with Hélène decades ago. Soon enough Hélène will be gone and all this “bric-a-brac from another era” (her words) will, much to Frédéric’s chagrin, have to be sold off. Life goes on.
The eloquence of Summer Hours comes from the way Assayas, along with his cast and crew—including regular ace cinematographer Eric Gauthier—convey this sense of life’s hopelessly forward movement, without a trace of theatrics yet flowing with overwhelming emotion. Even if your family bears not the slightest resemblance to this one their negotiations and disappointments and sudden recoveries will resonate, not through any awkward straining toward making things “universal” but rather through its very particularity. Each character is so fully drawn as to feel warmly recognizable before they even say much. In that first scene with the treasure hunt in the woods surrounding Hélène’s house a blank piece of paper is found. One of the kids correctly guesses that the paper holds a clue but that the clue’s written in invisible ink. Watching Summer Hours the second time I had to smile at this very elegant little prelude to what’s to come, a chronicle of managing the residue of the past where the secret message this residue carries waits invisibly for the characters to decipher and digest. It says: just take a deep breath, and let go.