05/13/2009 4:00 AM |

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
, 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