Summer Hours
Directed by Olivier Assayas

Even in terms of singer-not-the-song auteurism, few directors switch gears so effortlessly among disparate moods and subjects as Olivier Assayas, who frequently moves from ambitious experimentation to small-scale modesty. Following Boarding Gate's bondage and backroom murder-drenched thriller, Summer Hours belongs in the second division, a loosely defined group less pyrotechnic than the genre-inverting meta-critiques for which he has garnered more notice; it's the kind of film through which his subtle and disarmingly complex gifts achieve beautiful fulfillment.

Opening on a scene of familial bliss at a clan's provincial sanctuary, Summer Hours traces the dissolution of the villa of elderly matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob), niece of famous painter Paul Berthier, who still lords over the estate as both revered and distant ghost. Berthier and his art collection belong to "another era," as the grandkids put it, a sentiment understood by Hélène, who readies herself for death by giving her eldest, Frederic (Charles Berling, remarkably vulnerable), instructions about the house's market value. Frederic believes it will eventually be passed on to his own children; given her exeunt in a gloomy dusk dramatically opposed to the lush settings experienced moments before, Hélène knows otherwise.

Thus Summer Hours explores, à la The Cherry Orchard, successive generations' different relations to the emotional residue of heirlooms. Globalism has younger sister Adrienne (atypically standoffish Juliette Binoche) and brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) starting and raising families abroad, forcing Frederic to sell the house. But where his siblings' feelings about the property are ambivalent, Frederic is regretful and sorrowful, growing out of his naïve belief in permanence and purity, but also seeing art linked to site-specific memories "caged" in the museums to which they've been donated. The personal history of art, Assayas suggests, is far deeper than can be accounted for by its institutions: family maid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) chooses to keep a valuable vase not for its monetary worth but for its pragmatic use and lived-in resonance.

The sober realism in which Summer Hours plays out bursts into something grand with a stunning fare-thee-well, completing a circle with another celebration at the now nearly vacated house: a party hosted by Frederic's teenage children that steers thankfully clear of kids-today cynicism. Following curly-haired, pot smoking Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) in an ebullient roaming long take as she turns the quiet family haven into a brief, impromptu musical, Assayas merges carefree adolescence with its longing for the fading idyll of childhood, a place abstract and more poignantly palpable in the dwellings we must inevitably leave behind.

Opens May 15


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