Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
French Title: L'heure d'été
Olivier Assayas' delicately magnificent Summer Hours is bookended by two gatherings in a rustic summer house that is located a few hours from Paris. The film opens with children hunting for treasure. The children, offspring of siblings who have been separated by a rapidly globalizing culture and are only reunited during important family events like birthdays or funerals, run and play around the house, apparently oblivious of the intricacies of what’s going on with the adults. It is the 75th birthday of Hélène (Edith Scob), the family’s matriarch and safe-keeper of the estate of her late uncle, a famous painter who has amassed a collection of valuable art pieces. The celebration, seemingly warm and sun-drenched like the summer house, is more than meets the eye. The family reunion, beneath the token gift-giving and the heartfelt well-wishes, is a precursor to Assayas’ astute discourse on mortality and immortality, as exemplified by life and its limits, and the things, both tangible and intangible, that humanity leaves behind.
Hélène dies. Her children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist living in Paris, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), an art designer working in New York, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a factory manager residing in China, have been left with the decision of what to do with the house and the treasures therein. The dilemma is seemingly straightforward: Frédéric wants to preserve the estate for gatherings in the future and for their children, while Jérémie and Adrienne, who foretell their inevitable disconnect with France given their jobs abroad, opt to sell everything. As the pieces are sold and hauled away from the house, values are revealed and sentimental attachments are disclosed. Assayas, who fascinatingly documents the goings-on with astounding near-objectivity and hardly any emotional attachment in display, crafts a resounding elegy of legacy as opposed to estate, the former being objects inherently co-existing with memories formed with them and the latter being objects appreciated only for their utilitarian value.
Summer Hours, while fundamentally a family drama that tackles the most intimate of familial interactions, reaches further to comment on the current world of globalized culture where factories in China, ran by a French expatriate, are manufacturing Puma shoes to be sold in the United States, or design houses in New York are conceptualizing vases to be sold in Japan, or an unpaid mortgage by Californian blue-collar worker triggers a global financial crisis. Globalization has seeped into what is believed to be the proudest of cultures; as the staple American influence, from the preference of wearing a pair of Converse sneakers instead of China-made Pumas to having your children be educated in the English language, have found themselves not only in the extremities of familial reunions but in the utmost core of decisions. The Berthiers, coming from a line of cultural workers with the great grand uncle being a famous painter, have succumbed to the globalization malady.
Further manifested through showings of how cheapened culture is being turned into via its commodification through auction houses and other institutions whose capitalist intentions simplify culture to maximize financial worth and nothing more, Assayas’ subtle lament becomes more meaningful. In the guise of democratizing appreciation for what is advertised as cultural or artistic heritage, placing the Coron and Redon paintings, the Majorelle and Hoffman furniture, and the Bracquemond and D’Auteuil vases in museums for everyone’s limited and momentary pleasure, the meaning and essence of these objects dissipate as they are relegated the sole function of time capsules to everyone, from the previous owner who acknowledges these pieces as soulless outside the summer house that housed the memories that they keep to the random passerby whose appreciation for the object is limited to what is written in the label or what is mentioned by the paid lecturer.
By communicating conflict through minute gestures instead of grand emotional displays, Assayas has created a film so elegant and graceful it seems to belong in another era. Conflicts are enlarged not by what is visible and immediately felt, but by what are merely suggested: Hélène’s monologue, which caps her 75th birthday, fades out to after her death several months after the reunion; the housemaid who parts with the summer house from the outside looking in; the long conversations between the siblings which end with Frédéric crying alone in the dark. Civility has never been this tenuously depicted, as if a sudden burst of violent disagreement would function to sever ties forever. Outbursts are quick and apologies, even quicker. Aches, experiences and reminiscences do not make opulent appearances. They only function as defining moods and nuances, sources of understandings and misunderstandings, the very thing, fragile and incorporeal as they are, that keeps the family a family.
Ultimately, Summer Hours feels like a swansong to an era that was and is still beautiful but is being rendered obsolete by a world that is so fascinated by materialism. Yet, survival dictates that humanity move on and adapt. The film ends in the same house where the children of Frédéric are throwing a party before the sale papers are signed and the summer house transfers ownership. This is the torch being given to the next generation, where the opening’s gathering is pastoral in its simplicity and gracefulness, the ending’s gathering is rowdy and noisy. Assayas seems to suggest an ominous future where the next generation are nothing more than uncouth, uncultured, and unappreciative lots. However, Assayas slows down and allows a glimpse of the next generation, a glimpse that the entire movie seems to have neglected in giving. Frédéric’s daughter, in a surprising sincere expression of somber regret, tells her boyfriend of what her grandmother has told her and the value of the house to her. Promises were broken. Objects fade. Memories remain. Memories are all that we share.