Most of the times, the antiques and treasures we value so much has less to do with who made them, when, and what they're made from than with how much they were admired, loved and utilized by their owners. If our personal connection with that object is broken, it ceases to have any meaning or relevance. That is what happens following the death of a 75 year old lady in Oliver Assayas' warmhearted French family drama "Summer Hours" ("L'heure d'ete", 2008).
Oliver Assayas is famous for his talk-driven ensemble dramas ("Boarding Gate", "Clean", and "demonlover"). This is his first movie to be set in the heart of a bourgeois French family and probably his most accessible. "Summer hours" is about a patrician family with a gorgeous old country house outside Paris, including the museum-quality furniture and priceless artwork. It also explores the complex interactions, modern-day trends and how they impact families in a subtle manner. Nothing much happens here and the plot is minimal. So, if you can't relate to what Assayas is attempting to do, you will definitely feel bored or else you will come away with a contemplative mood.
The movie starts in a gleeful manner as kids are romping around the verdant grounds of the rustic estate, far removed from the concrete and glass jungles where their parents live and work. The comfy rural estate belongs to 75 year old Helene Berthier (Edith Scob), whose adult children Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) and assorted grandchildren gather rarely to celebrate her birthday. Helene has devoted much of her life to protect the legacy of her uncle (Paul Berthier), a famous painter. Her uncle being a great artist has filled the estate with works of art and furniture that is sought by collectors and museums.
Helene senses that her time may be short. She also thinks about the artworks, whose very existence might be taken for granted after her death. She desperately talks with her elder son, Frederic about what will become of it all once she is gone. A few months after the birthday celebration, Helene dies. Jeremie, a successful businessman, wants to move with his family to Shanghai. So, he expresses his desire to sell the family estate and split the proceeds, mainly for financial concerns. Adrienne, sculptor and designer, is in the same mind-set as Jeremie, who is living in New York with her boyfriend. Frederic, an economist, wants to keep the house and art collections but is not rich enough to buy out his siblings. The rest of the film is about the fate of the old estate and its inexpensive art collection.
Assayas direction is almost Ozu-like (which comes only with time and experience) in its elicitation of a parent's death and the dissolving bond between the surviving children. He doesn't points or forces the ideas into our minds, but rather draws us into the lives of its characters, none of whom are heroic or terrible or even all that unique. They are just humans -- ordinariness being the key element to their appeal. The camerawork is gorgeous, where most of the scenes are shot through windows, with reflections obscuring the actors' faces.
Performances in this eloquent film are all superb -- everyone incorporating the ravaging effects of the shrinking personal relationships and family traditions. Charles Berling as Frederic has the central role. His desire and struggle to preserve the family's memories is both particular and universal (cross-cultural). Near the end, Frederic finds a cordless phone in the estate, which was given by him for his mother's birthday. The phone is still in its box with a note which says: "Ask Frédéric to set up the phone." At that moment, the expression you see at Berling's face will be understood by anyone who has never explained the computer or internet to his mom.
When the museum curators are examining the art collections, they find a invaluable Bracquemond glass vase. Minutes later, the former caretaker, Eloise (old woman) takes the vase, fills it with water and puts the fresh flowers into it. That moment exemplifies director Assayas' ultimate point i.e., no matter how beautiful that Bracquemond vase is, it's meant to hold flowers, not to be displayed in a museum. The vase might have fetched lot of money for the family, but it has lost its purpose and it's just another seemingly unremarkable object in a collection. The transitional ending has the sense of generational torch being passed, which neatly recapitulates the earlier summertime opening from a new perspective.
"Summer Hours" is talky and has all the elements to constitute a French art-house movie: down-to-Earth discussions, delinquent, in-the-present-moment teenagers and intelligent adults. The movie never becomes emotional or sentimental. You will like this movie, only if you develop a deep resonance with the characters because these cross-cultured men and women are reflections of us (stocked with the same memories and thoughts).
Summer Hours -- IMDb