Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours is deceptively simple and undramatic, from its first moment (a lazy summer idyll, a family reunion) to its last (another summer party, this one a raucous gathering of youths). As these bookend scenes suggest, the film is about generational gaps, about the past and the future, about the breaking up of a family and its history, and the continuities and linkages that remain even after such fractures. The film is warm and gentle, its emotions mostly understated, its drama largely buried beneath the surface — there are only momentary bursts of harsh words, and wounds are quickly mended. It's a film dominated by quiet emotions, by melancholy, nostalgia, well-worn loves, regret, separation and reunion. It's the story of a family united around the strong core of an aging mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), and what happens to this family when she's no longer around.

The film's opening scene is arguably the key to the entire film, a dense introduction to the elements, objects and ideas that will continue to weave throughout the rest of the film, their meanings gradually unfurling. The family has gathered at their childhood home for Hélène's 75th birthday, bringing together the oldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), his younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), along with the brothers' wives and children. It is an active, vivacious party, and Assayas' roaming camera captures the interplay of the various characters by remaining perpetually in motion, gliding through the corridors of the house or drifting among the lush greenery surrounding the estate, where the children's laughter echoes through the bushes. This family is reunited only sporadically, since work has taken both Adrienne and Jérémie far from home — she lives in New York, while he lives in China. Only Frédéric still lives in France, near enough to visit his mother more often, though one gets the impression that he still only sees her occasionally. They are a loving family, affectionate and comfortable with each other, but they have their own lives, their own problems and concerns, their own careers, which largely don't interest each other.

As for Hélène, she is absorbed in the past, in the memory of her uncle Paul, a famous painter whose legacy she has maintained since his death. Her home is a shrine to him, to the work of the other artists he collected, and to his own work as well. During these opening scenes, she takes her son Frédéric on a tour of the house, showing him antiques and works of arts, preparing him for her death — he doesn't want to hear about it, doesn't want to think about selling anything, about breaking apart this home in which so many memories reside. She knows, however, that it will have to happen, that her family is spread too far across the world to retain any nostalgia or use for her nostalgic home, with its many links to the past. These conflicting feelings are at the core of the film, which is torn between a melancholy longing for a lost past and a need to engage in the present, to avoid being overwhelmed by memories, weighed down by what came before. Frédéric shows his children some of the paintings in the house, telling them that one day these will be theirs, that they can pass them on to their own children as well, but the kids don't really care: "that's another era," it has nothing to do with their lives, their present.

This opening is lively and evocative, with these sad feelings of loss lingering just beneath the surface. There is a sense here of a tenuous balance between past and present: Hélène seems slightly out of sync with the bright, sunny aura of her own gardens, with her laughing grandchildren running everywhere, and her children who are loving and attentive but also lost in their own lives, not really attuned to her thoughts and concerns. For her birthday, they give her a complicated telephone system, and she picks through the box hesitantly, laughing, telling them they'll have to set it up for her, knowing that they'll probably forget (which they do). Her house is full of life for this one day, and perhaps she's remembering when her own children were young. She still keeps a plastic bag full of the shattered pieces of a valuable plaster statue her sons broke when they were children, and now she sees her grandchildren playing with similar abandon, disregarding warnings, running wildly around the spacious grounds. Assayas' filmmaking is subtle and supple, his camera agile, as he carefully creates a portrait of three generations of a family, their lives so different and yet bound together in small ways, with touches of affection, with shared memories.

This sublime opening sequence ends with a chilling series of scenes after the rest of the family has gone home, and Hélène is left by herself. She watches her children and grandchildren drive away, returning to their busy lives, and then she walks up a set of stone steps, out of the bright sunlight of the party, hunching over as she ducks under an overhanging tree limb and into the shade. This darker, moody loneliness is carried over into the next scene, in which Hélène sits inside her house with the lights off, speaking with her loyal longtime housekeeper Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), another old woman, someone she's perhaps closer with than she is with her own family. These scenes are as dark, claustrophobic and static as the opening was airy and fun. In contrast to the fluid cinematography of the opening scenes, here Assayas switches rhythmically between medium shots of the two women looking at one another and talking, Hélène bathed in shadows, the whole scene drenched in dark blues and browns. The autumnal chill of these interior scenes contrast against the lush greens of the party sequence, and it's obvious that Hélène is preparing to leave the world.

The film then leaps ahead in time, as the three siblings deal with the death of their mother some time later, as well as struggling with what to do with the legacy and possessions she left behind. Throughout the rest of the film, Hélène's house stands in for her, holding the summation of her life and work, everything she left behind, her memories encoded into the objects that surrounded her throughout her life, the art and furniture and fancy antique vases. Assayas imbues these objects with life, with great significance beyond their surface appearances. The children are concerned with breaking up their mother's estate, selling off some items, donating others to museums, avoiding heavy taxes, spreading around all the art she collected, everything that she had preserved so carefully in memory of her beloved uncle. The siblings are thinking about the value of these things in terms of money, but they are also conscious of the difference between monetary value and, as Adrienne says at one point, "sentimental value." Frédéric alone among the siblings does not want to part with his mother's possessions, but his sister and brother, living outside France, with little remaining connection to their home or their past, outvote him.

In its subtle way, the film is about the stories embedded in objects, the rich histories of the things we amass, and the emotional significance we attribute to such possessions. The opening established many of these meanings and connections for the things in Hélène's home, and throughout the film further meanings are uncovered, packed in layers around the home and the family's history. Assayas' storytelling is refreshingly straightforward and yet elusive, letting even the few potentially melodramatic revelations simply drop into the story without spreading too many disruptive ripples. Objects first introduced in the opening scenes are recontextualized throughout the rest of the film, acquiring new significance or reawakening old meanings. Adrienne especially has a connection to a certain silver plate with a leaf design, which once figured in a disturbing dream she tells her mother about at the beginning of the film. Later, when she finds the plate again, a broad smile spreads across her face: she is reunited with something important from her past, or perhaps, for a moment, with her mother, and the plate's reflective surface casts a pale white light onto her face, as though there were something magic in the moment.

This low-key, naturalistic magic flows through the entire film. Summer Hours is a marvelously self-assured film, a film entirely in control of its emotions and its dense network of associations. It's a film with a complicated relationship to the past, embracing the nostalgia of what came before without losing sight of the necessity for progress, for new things. The final scene thus provides an unexpectedly poignant closure for this complex film. In the final days before Hélène's house is to be sold, her grandchildren return to the now-empty estate with their friends, throwing a party on the abandoned grounds, where the rooms are eerily bare, stripped of the possessions that had so much meaning for Hélène. They are defiantly modern, drinking and smoking, doing drugs, blasting hip-hop and loud rock music through computers and stereo equipment, dancing and chatting. And yet Assayas is not making the obvious point one would expect, he's not suggesting that these loud, rowdy teenagers are disrespecting the past, trampling on something sacred. The scene is infused with subtle melancholy, in the sadness of Hélène's granddaughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) as she remembers her missing grandmother, as she mourns the loss of this house she now won't be able to visit with her own children someday, as she once was promised. And then, grabbing her boyfriend's hand, she runs off through the tall grass, climbing a wall and skipping through the sunny fields. She is looking both forward and back, and so is this wonderful, remarkably rich film.


The Film Doctor said...

Excellent review. It seems surprising that, given the material, Assayas doesn't sentimentalize, or make points about the generational degradation of culture as it shifts from paintings to drugs and hip-hop. The film sounds like John Huston's The Dead with its emphasis on cultural inheritance.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, FilmDr. What I loved about the film was precisely that lack of sentimentality or cultural snobbery. Instead, it's about how cultural objects only acquire meaning in relation to people and our feelings about them. Ultimately, the younger generation doesn't care about the valuable artifacts their predecessors have left behind -- they prefer hip-hop and garage rock, something they can dance to -- but this doesn't mean they reject the older generation; they love and miss their grandmother rather than caring about her "legacy." Conversely, the objects that were so important to previous generations, that had such layered meanings, are drained of significance once they're enshrined in a museum, displayed for tourists to walk past without knowing anything about the rich history in these things.

Sam Juliano said...

"In its subtle way, the film is about the stories embedded in objects, the rich histories of the things we amass, and the emotional significance we attribute to such possessions."

OK, I must say I really like that description. And yes, the film is definitely devoid of sentimentality or cultural snobbery, yet it's as deeply felt as any film in recent years. It's it's deft human insights, and it's treatment of the 'transience' of possessions, it paints a valid portrait of human psychology at a defining moment. The film is also beautifully filmed. It may be the best film I've seen so far in 2009.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, totally agreed. It's a wonderful film, and despite its placid surface, it's really potent in the emotions and ideas it's exploring.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Very nice analysis of this very beautiful film, Ed. I found the narratological structure of the film to be Assayas's most richly layered yet, especially in how--as you point out--he subtly shifts his identification through all three generations. This makes me want to return to some of his earlier films, particularly Late August, Early September, and look for similar patterns.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, J. It's definitely very layered, there's just so much going on in the relationships between the characters and their relationships to the past and to the objects in Helene's home. This film, one of the best I've seen in a while, obviously makes me want to see much more Assayas.

Tony Dayoub said...

I saw this last year at an NYFF press screening, and I remember that the critics were somewhat bowled over by the film. With most of us looking forward to some of the showier screenings like Eastwood's Changeling, Soderbergh's Che, and Aronofsky's The Wrestler, I'm not sure anyone expected this film to be so... well, as you nailed it in your review, "self-assured."

What fascinated me was Assayas' discussion about the origins of the film after the screening. Apparently it was commissioned by Paris' Musee D'Orsay as part of a series of films. It's fitting since the film's concerns lie with the value that one attaches to objects especially in art, history, and as Assayas asserts, family heritage .

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Tony. Like you, I wasn't quite expecting this film to blow me away so thoroughly. It was a wonderful surprise.

Yes, this film was originally commissioned as a short in an omnibus feature for the Musee d'Orsay. The other films that would have been part of the anthology were by Hong Sang-soo and Hou Hsiao-hsien (whose Red Balloon started its life as part of this anthology, like Summer Hours). Then the museum had to back out of the project, and the filmmakers were left to finish the films on their own. The museum still lent out a lot of art for Assayas to feature in his film, though.

Troy Olson said...

Just watched this and came upon your review, Ed. You really hit on all the points here so perfectly that I wish I hadn't read it before crafting my own review, as I'm indelibly going to be influenced by your fine words here :)

The way Assayas is able to derive so much out of seemingly so little is quite an accomplishment here (and decidedly French -- I can only imagine the huge denouement or big moment that an American director would feel the need to include).

He uses such a light touch in his examination of family/art. Credit to both him and the actors as even though Assayas stays somewhat detached from the characters, you still feel like you know them and (at least for me) could figure out their relationship within the family.

I find the connection to THE RED BALLOON interesting, as I found that movie to be somewhat of a bore (a tad too pretentious for my liking) and yet, Assayas successfully avoids such a trap, yet with a subject that could easily lend its way to such pretension.

Troy Olson said...

Also -- I struggled a bit with parsing the ending of the film, as I at first thought Assayas was making some ironic remark on the youth of France and their obliviousness to the history and culture that the house entails. But that bothered me, as it simply didn't fit with the rest of the film (Assayas never is preaching to us about the value of art or history).

So, your understanding of the ending is a much preferred one and seems to jive more with the demeanor of the film.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Troy, I'm glad you enjoyed this one, which I thought was one of the best films I saw last year. And yes, one of the things I like about it is how completely Assayas resists preaching or moralizing. The ending might've seemed like the kind of ironic comment you're talking about if it hadn't been so joyous and genuine in its celebration, and at the same time undercut by a faint hint of melancholy and mourning, a sense that the young daughter is still connected to her grandmother, and even in the midst of these festivities misses her and what she represented. It's hard to imagine any other director so subtly suggesting these emotions at the film's climax, without ever coming out with the expected "message."