French director Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours opens with a glimpse into a world that has already passed away, though not all the characters realize it yet.
On the luxuriant grounds of a stately old country home in a village not far from Paris, a pack of children and dogs run along well-tended paths under a high pavilion of limbs and leaves. Someone produces a blank sheet of paper with invisible writing in lemon juice, revealing itself to a lighter flame.
When at last the children report back to the house, they are met by a matronly cook or housekeeper, who reproves them over the dinner bell that went unheard and unheeded. In the background, drinking wine, are the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles — grown siblings and their spouses, with a bright-eyed septuagenarian matriarch presiding over all.
All seems right with this world … but it’s a fleeting echo of an earlier time. The house is alive, but only briefly, recalled from somnolence by a sudden influx of raucous energy and extended familial sodality for a birthday reunion. All too soon, the hilarious day will be spent, children bundled back into minivans for the drive to the airport or the trek back home, and the house will return to its accustomed twilight, with night approaching.
Hélène (Edith Scob), celebrating her 75th birthday, understands this, and wants to take the opportunity to prepare for what comes next. But Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest of her three children and the only one who still lives in France, doesn’t grasp that the world he knows in and through this house is slipping away.
His mother seems the picture of health, and speaks keenly about traveling to San Francisco for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by her uncle, a noted impressionist named Paul Berthier — the original resident of the house, and the collector of the priceless art and furniture that fills it. Hélène was devoted to Berthier and his work (she has authored a book on him that has just been published in English as well as French), and the film suggests that the artist may have returned his niece’s devotion with more than avuncular affection.
Whatever may come, Frédéric implicitly assumes the continuity of these family reunions for decades to come. The next generation of children already have roots in this house where he and his siblings grew up; he takes for granted that vacations and other events will continue to bring them all home, passing onto the next generation the golden memories celebrated in that lovely opening scene.
But his younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) has a career that has taken him to China, where labor is cheap and high-end Puma sneakers can be manufactured for less than in Europe. He’ll be there long enough that his family is joining him, so they won’t have the benefit of the house for years to come. Anyway, he needs the money for their new start in China.
Their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a New York designer, is the most aesthetically appreciative of the siblings of the things her great-uncle collected. Rootless and noncommittal, Adrienne is reluctant to take sides or cast the deciding vote, but like Jérémie she has few ties to France and doesn’t foresee returning often. And there’s the estate tax to consider. Is so priceless an inheritance one that anyone can afford to keep?
So there it is. Frédéric can hardly believe it when it comes to the point — which always seems to come sooner than expected — but mercifully there is no exaggerated drama, no hyped family conflict. The bond of fraternal affection is no defense against the conflicting interests that pull the siblings in opposing directions, but by the same token conflicting interests don’t turn the siblings against one another. They’re simply going in different directions.
That blend of familiar closeness and tolerant forbearance that often characterizes healthy adult family relationships rings true here. Hélène smilingly calls one of her birthday presents a “gift for old people,” but she’s only joking. Adrienne needles Jérémie about profiting from sweat shops, while Adrienne’s disastrous failed marriage is such an open joke that the very notion of her marrying again provokes incredulous hilarity.
Tellingly, the absence of any one sibling changes the dynamic: Jérémie and Adrienne quietly share concerns about Frédéric when he’s out of the room, while Frédéric and Jérémie have an entirely different relationship when Adrienne isn’t there. Assayas views all his characters in their foibles and human desires with sympathy, and allows his viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Bound up in this haunting, moving meditation on a family in transition are implicit questions about globalization and the relationship of art, life and culture, the past and the future. Jérémie’s children will grow up in an English-language school in China, with no real sense of French identity. Jérémie’s means of providing for his family may be compromised, as Adrienne suggests, but at the same time his wife is deeply committed to volunteer work with the Chinese Christian community among the poor of Shanghai.
What is art really worth? In a central scene, appraisers from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris go through Hélène’s possessions discussing their value. In the end, much of the family collection — a mahogany desk by Art Nouveau designer Louis Majorelle, a Bracquemont glass vase — passes to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, in part to offset the estate tax.
But another Bracquemont vase, equally valuable, is taken as a keepsake by the beloved housekeeper Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), who chooses it, not because she especially likes it, but because she thinks it has no real value except as a reminder — ideally with flowers in it — of Hélène. Well, what is a vase for, anyway? To Frédéric, the objects in the museum are like a collection of rare insects, carefully labeled and mounted, and dead. The vase in Éloïse’s possession remains vital and alive, its rarity undetected and irrelevant.
There is a moment in a coda in which Frédéric’s teenaged daughter has a fleeting insight into what the old family house means to her father. She is there on the eve of the sale of the estate with a throng of friends and peers for whom the house and grounds are simply a great place for a party with loud music and ample liquor. Then, briefly, childhood memories flicker in her, awakening a sense of loss.
Then it’s gone, and the film turns its gaze to what is coming next. This is reality. This is what matters now. Or, if not precisely this (since the teen party is a passing thing, no more connected to the estate or to the new stories that will soon unfold there than to the story we have just watched), then something else, just as distinct from, and unrelated to, the former things.
The house and its accoutrements were a monument to something worth remembering — but every monument is eventually a tomb. Twilight becomes night, and a new day dawns. The page turns, and a new story is being written.
It’s a bittersweet coda, one aware of the preciousness of memory and the things remembered, and aware that both of them slip through our fingers, never to return. We cannot hang on even to memory. Perhaps what Summer Hours leaves us with, in part, is enduring awareness of loss: not only the eventual loss of our own worlds and stories, but the lost worlds whose monuments we pass daily and whose tombs we fill, for the moment, with our own vitality and presence.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.