After the genre-riffing demonlover, Clean and Boarding Gate, which he classifies as an informal trilogy on "the world today, where cultures and languages mix, where the movement of people is determined — as it always has been — by the movement of merchandise and money," Olivier Assayas "come[s] back home" to the novelistic family-oriented vein of his Late August, Early September (the kind of movie you kick yourself after watching for the first time, for not having had it in your life before; see it see it see it) and Les Destinees Sentimentales. Which is another way of saying that, with Summer Hours, he's back to shooting in natural rather than florescent light.
But that's maybe to make a false dichotomy in Assayas's films: Clean was ultimately about family relationships in all their irreducible messiness, and Boarding Gate's jet-lagged but curious gaze was anything but thesis-driven. And the family drama here is pointedly a modern one — the (varyingly) reluctant divvying up of an inheritance and the selling off of passed-down property and especially art, as wrangled over by a brother in Paris and another in China, and a sister in New York, like all three dragged their index fingers over a spinning globe and late-stage capitalism complied. The mood, though, is a return, dappled and happysad and diffuse, with relationships carried out rather than explained, characters dipping in and out (of the story and the frame), seasons changing and beards grown in and shaved off offscreen, the talk flowing and the camera's eye wandering. (Assayas's regular cinematographer, Eric Gautier, is here as elsewhere easily distracted by food, the camera abandoning a conversation to fixate on dinner — is there no craft services table on an Assayas shoot, or something?) Like Late August, Early September, the movie could go on for an infinitely long time, and become infinitely more complex in its human interrelationships.
Though it's more direct about its themes, with the majority of its running time dedicated to the unsettlingly matter-of-fact business of appraising and auctioning selling and bequeathing and displaying. The idea being talked through here has to do with the lives of objects and the taking-up, or abandonment, of the mantle of memory. At times you wish Assayas had swaddled his talking points in a little more abstract texture — conversations between oldest son Charles Berling and his children tend be spot-on about the traditions at stake; out of two antique vases, one ends up in a museum and one ends up holding flowers on a friend of the family's mantlepiece, and I wish for the sake of complexity that that dichotomy marked the beginning of Assayas's musings rather than the fixed endpoint. But seriously, folks, what we have here is a deeply affectionate movie about people tumbling along with and beating back against the currents of time, together and apart; and about our often difficult relationship with the stuff that exists as the tangible representation of transient connections.
Summer Hours screens tonight at 6pm (sold out, though tickets are sometimes released late) and tomorrow at 9pm. IFC Films will release the film next spring.