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Monday, August 10, 2009

Review: Summer Hours (2009)

* * *

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier

Memories are precious, elusive things, often more tenuous than we’d like to admit. Summer Hours explores the death, of sorts, of certain memories and the impact that that has on members of a family. It is a languid, beautifully crafted film that doesn’t really hit you until well after you’ve seen it. I saw it about a week ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, haunted by certain images. This is a solid, graceful film that's definitely worth a look.

It opens with the birthday of Hélène (Edith Scob) and the gathering of her family at the old family home to celebrate. It is a great occasion for her because it is one of the rare instances on which she is with all of her children – daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in New York, younger son Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) lives in China, and elder son Frédéric (Charles Berling), though he lives in France, is always working – and their children, but also sad because she knows that realistically she doesn’t have much longer and that once she’s gone, part of the family history will fade away with her. The home once belonged to Hélène’s uncle, an artist whose memory and reputation she has spent most of her life trying to preserve, though she doesn’t expect her children to do the same once she’s gone. She tries to talk to her children about what she does want, but they insist that there’s time and no need to make a happy occasion morbid and so the subject is more or less dropped.

Within a year Hélène has died and the siblings are together in France once again to sort out the estate. Frédéric assumes that they will keep the house and certain pieces of art to pass on to their children, but Adrienne and Jérémie have other ideas. Neither plans to be in France much over the next few years and the house is a luxury they can’t afford. Reluctantly, Frédéric agrees to sell, though he doesn’t really want to let go. Much of the film centres on him and his attempts to hang on to memories that aren’t really his at all, but memories of his mother’s memories of a time long since passed when her uncle was still alive; and the slow realization that he has to let it slip away. Frédéric wants to have things for the sake of keeping them, rather than because they necessarily mean something to him. By the end of the film he’ll visit some of his mother’s furniture in a museum. It’s strange, he admits, but life must go on.

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, the film unfolds in a simple, unintrusive way. It doesn’t ask us to judge Adrienne and Jérémie, for example, for wanting to sell the house and most of its contents – it’s a sensible, reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. It does, however, focus quite directly on Hélène’s loneliness and the fact that she has things to say and no one to listen. After the birthday party, when the children and grandchildren have all gone on their way, Hélène’s housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) remarks that the grandchildren forgot to take the cherries they’d picked. Hélène responds that their parents were too busy thinking of other things such as their journeys home. It’s a very sad scene and the image of Hélène sitting alone in her dark living room is striking. Part of the reason why her children, particularly Frédéric, focus so much on her things is because they know they should have been focused more on her - objects don't have meaning in and of themselves, but derive meaning through the way that we associate them with other people. Given the opportunity to have something of Hélène's as a keepsake, Eloise chooses a vase. The vase is incredibly valuable, but she doesn't know that; she chooses it because Hélène loved to have fresh flowers in vases and now whenever she puts flowers into it, she'll be able to remember her friend.

The film was conceived as part of a series produced by Musée d’Orsay that also includes Flight of the Red Balloon. This film strikes a similar tone as Red Balloon, though it does a better job of incorporating the museum itself into the story. Stylistically and in terms of subject matter, I know that this is the kind of movie that can an acquired taste because it just sort of drifts towards its conclusion rather than being driven there by the force of the narrative, but I found it to be very moving and thoughtful.


Ed Howard said...

I loved this movie, too, it really blew me away with its grace and quiet beauty. I love the way Assayas subtly manages mood and tone throughout the film, most apparent in the way the clamor and activity of the opening party gives way to loneliness and isolation: the shot of Helene walking up the stairs alone, the shots of her and her housekeeper in the darkened, now-empty house. And I love how Assayas makes the various objects and pieces of art stand in for Helene in her memories after her death, the way he keeps returning to objects that we saw as part of life during the party, now put up for sale or enshrined in a museum. It's a wonderful film, one whose emotional impact really sneaks up on you.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, the scenes with Eloise towards the end really got to me. I only gave the film a 3, but I have a feeling that I'll be rethinking that by the end of the year because the more I think about this movie, the more I feel its impact.