Summer Hours (L'heure d'été, 2008) is a delicately understated, impressively honest film exploring issues people generally prefer to avoid: preparing for a parent's eventual death and later seeing to the disposition of their property and personal effects. Because writer-director Olivier Assayas's approach is unsentimental, the viewer is not swept up in all the emotion that usually accompanies such events and instead is able to observe universally recognizable responses by adult children forced to confront the realities of mortality.
Though not particularly a title crying out for Criterion treatment, Summer Hours nonetheless deserves a bigger American audience, and this Blu-ray release will certainly help that. It's a very accessible film and in some ways it seems to have been made with the export market in mind; an American remake has even been announced.
The film opens with a 75th birthday party for Hélène (Édith Scob), an elegant widow who lives in a tasteful country estate an hour's drive from Paris. Her three adult children are there to celebrate along with their families. Dutiful Frédéric (Charles Berling) is the eldest, and the only one still living in France. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) has been living in Beijing with his family and working for Puma, the tennis shoes company. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is living in New York with her American boyfriend (Kyle Eastwood, Clint's son), designing goods for Takashimaya, the Japanese department store chain.
Hélène is also the niece (and, as it turns out, also the final lover) of a famous artist whose memory she's systematically kept in the public eye since his death in 1972; a major exhibition of his work is planned later that year in San Francisco. At her party Hélène takes Frédéric aside to discuss the disposition of the uncle-artist's notebooks, some valuable pieces of art by other artists the uncle collected through the years, and Hélène's country house after she dies. Frédéric doesn't want to talk about such things, and anyway after she's gone the family naturally will want to keep everything just as it is so that they and their children can continue enjoying the house and its treasures for generations to come.
(Spoilers). But Hélène does die sooner than later, after the exhibition in San Francisco. Frédéric, Jérémie, and Adrienne have little choice but gather to discuss what to do next. Frédéric is taken aback by his siblings' attitude; they want to sell everything, the house included, and divide the money. Unhappily agreeing, the process of emptying the house, putting it on the market, having the artwork appraised, donated, passed down, auctioned off or otherwise sold is set into motion.
Some years ago a friend of mine went to see John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and was unnerved by what she saw. There on the screen, played by Gena Rowlands, was her own crazy mother, every nuance perfectly immortalized on film. Watching Summer Hours I felt something eerily similar because this film and its characters mirror almost exactly what my own family went through some years back, albeit much less civilly and minus all the French wine, chain-smoking, and meals in the idyllic garden. Much of what makes Summer Hours so powerful is that what happens to this family happens to everyone at some point in their lives. And yet at the same time no one wants to talk about it. If you haven't gone though this experience at least once already, be warned: it's coming.
The film does much more than merely acknowledge the painful realization that we often have no choice but to close chapters on our past lives, that, in this case, keeping the family house just isn't practical when two of three families will never use it and the third cannot afford it on their own. It explores in interesting ways how after death the objects that seem to define a person are scattered to the winds and become something else: a desk overflowing with use becomes a sterile museum piece disinterested tour groups whiz past; a birthday gift, a technologically daunting telephone, sits unopened on a windowsill long after the rest of the house has been emptied of its valuables; three beautiful notebooks filled with sketches and little paintings that its owner had requested be kept together are threatened because the faraway auction house stands to make a bigger profit selling it off piecemeal.
The funniest and most touching moment involves Hélène's old Mrs. Hudson-like housekeeper, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), who mourns her old employer and friend. Besides money left to her in Hélène's will, Frédéric invites Éloïse to select a personal memento. Not wanting to take anything valuable, she chooses a glass pot in which to keep flowers - unaware it's a priceless artifact. An amused Frédéric, cognizant of its worth, lets her have it anyway, for what does it really matter?
Assayas respects his audience enough to not feel obliged to explain everything. The last scene of the film has Frédéric's daughter throwing a large party for her friends at the by now vacant house, days before the property is to be turned over. The camera follows her around in a long, hand-held shot as she moves from room-to-room, smoking pot, sharing a laugh, flirting with boys, etc. With hip-hop music blaring in one room, the estate now looks nothing like it did at the beginning of the film, and yet even the daughter sheds tears at its loss. What does this last scene mean? Perhaps that as different one generation is from the next, as much disconnect exists, one can't help but acknowledge the impermanence of family.
There's also an interesting undercurrent of commentary about the globalization of family; no longer are children leaving their rural roots for the Big City - they're building new lives on different continents on opposite sides of the world (says this American writer living in Japan).
Juliette Binoche, her hair dyed blonde, gets top billing, undoubtedly because of her international reputation, but in truth she's a lesser supporting character, the largely absent adult daughter. The film really belongs to Charles Berling, who gives a subtle, deeply-affecting performance as the oldest sibling. Most of the other actors will be unfamiliar to American viewers, though Édith Scob (as Hélène) was naggingly familiar. She reminded me of Sandy Sturges, director Preston's widow, but it wasn't until I looked her up on the IMDb that it hit me: she had been the disfigured young woman in Georges Franju's classic Les yeux sans visage: Eyes without a Face.
Video & Audio
Sourcing an interpositive, Summer Hours gets a clean, eye-pleasing, but not particularly exceptional 1080p transfer in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The lovely colors of the estate's garden and the art indoors contrasts nicely with deglamorized Paris and its gray skies and austere office buildings. (Frédéric and his siblings meet in an amusingly claustrophobic faux-garden he's perhaps modeled after his mother's.) The surround sound was mastered at 24-bit from the original all-digital master files. The optional (white) English subtitles are excellent and the disc is Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a full-color 24-page booklet featuring cast and credits, info about the transfer, and, chiefly, "A Time to Live and a Time to Die," an engagingly personal overview of the director's career by writer Kent Jones. Assayas himself appears in a thoughtful, 30-minute interview while a more conventional making-of documentary features Berling, Binoche, and others. Finally, Inventory is an hour-long piece about the filmmakers' approach to art, artists, and museums as seen in the film. It's an interesting, unique featurette.
Summer Hours is the type of film that makes a strong initial impression for no clear reason, and over subsequent days as one digests it you begin to realize just how special it is. Drawing from Ozu and Bresson but also highly original and personal, Summer Hours is not to be missed. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.