In this beautifully nuanced film from acclaimed director Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria), two brothers and a sister (Juliette Binoche) witness the disappearance of their childhood memories when they must relinquish their family belongings to ensure their deceased mother's succession. As the treasured heirlooms of a romantic family past drift away, the siblings must confront the value of their memories.
Trust the French to do it. In this beautifully nuanced film, Olivier Assayas takes an ostensibly small subject – the death of a parent and the issue of succession of the family mansion and its artworks/cultural legacy – to reflect key issues of 21st century life.
Summer Hours traces the personal impact of family dispersal and globalisation, and the place of art and culture in a rapidly changing world.
The observations of a family spread over three continents and its generational dynamics are explored (with touches of Renoir and Chekov), from a script co-written by Assayas and his Taiwanese mentor and colleague, Hou Hsao Hsien. Like the best fusion cuisine, this movie delicately imbues European sensibility with a delicate tonal Asian flavour.
The title evokes the film’s joyful opening of a French family gathering for the birthday celebrations of the 75 year-old matriarch, Helene (Edith Scob) at their country mansion. Assayas quickly establishes the rarity of such occasions for the three 40-something siblings whose lives are scattered across the globe.
Francois (Charles Berling), is a Paris-based economics academic; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a New York based designer who prefers not to be weighed down by her past, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), a manufacturing executive who clearly sees his future tied to his career in China.
Helene, melancholy and depressed between these rare meetings, sparks to life only when presented with an advance copy of an art book manuscript she’s been involved in publishing, of the work and life of her brother-in-law and the trio’s uncle, (and as it turns out, her great passion) artist Paul Berthier, whose art legacy and personal notebooks are included in the family’s extensive collection.
Helene’s desire to discuss the succession is postponed but her unexpected death forces the topic when the siblings next reunite for her funeral. Assuming the customary tradition of keeping it within the family, Francois is taken aback when his siblings pragmatically vote to sell, citing future directions of their lives outside France as reasons. He’s outvoted but the dilemma underpins the entire movie.
The disputed family home and its legacy are poised at the crossroads, with its descendants forced to decide what elements to preserve or discard. The same is true of this generation as we face a seismic shift toward an uncertain future; the tension between tradition and transformation is captured so delicately in Assayas’ deceptively small family tale, through the metaphor of the house and its contents.
There is a lyrical rhythm in the spontaneous celebration of rural nature, particularly by the youngest generation (reverberating the director’s preoccupation with youth evident in his other movies) and family routine, contrasting with the three sibling’s professional preoccupations.
The same fluidity is evident in the ensemble’s naturalistic performances including superb turns in minor roles such as those of the loyal family servant Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) and teenage granddaughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) who actually has a greater affinity with her grandmother than her own children do.
What is interesting is the film’s ability to press different buttons. It works effectively as a family tale, a visual poem, and as an allegory of globalisation’s reconfiguration of cultural heritage. For the film’s most ardent admirers, it works on all levels.
Assayas’ true skill lies in his deft avoidance of sentimentality and overt nostalgia, despite traversing such emotionally ripe territory. He resists judgement in favour of thought-provoking ambiguity, causing the film’s impact to resonate long after leaving the cinema.
Binoche fans who wanted to see more of her in this movie will be delighted that Assayas has become so immersed in this story that his next film, Times to Come, takes up the story of Adrienne and her partner James, played by Kyle Eastwood, son of Clint. An acclaimed New York jazz musician who has written songs and scores for his father’s movies (such as Gran Torino and Letters From Iwo Jima), he let Assayas talk him into resuming a brief and occasional acting career.