Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours is a movie that falls prey to the relativity factor. Had this thoughtful film not come my way in the same week I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, I feel certain it would have impressed me more than it did. Still, on its own merits, it impressed me a good deal—and that’s an equal testament to its quality in its own way.
I’ll say from the onset that Summer Hours is a film for specialized tastes. It’s not exciting. It’s hardly action-packed. Assayas plays his cards close to his chest—rarely commenting, never stressing his points, just letting the viewer take in the quiet enormity of what’s really going on beneath a story that can be reduced to one simply concept: disposing of a large estate and the collectibles it holds. But there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of that simple concept.
On its most basic level, the film is a kind of “end of an era” drama—the kind of emotionally charged work that makes one long to hold onto something that will soon be no more (what it is doesn’t even have to be entirely desirable). However, Assayas is going for something much more complex than that, as becomes obvious in his tendency to play against sentimentality at almost every turn.
The film starts with a sequence that could easily have gone from the sentimental to the mawkish: the 75th birthday party for Hélène (Edith Scob), mother of three, grandmother of a few more and keeper of the flame for her late uncle, a painter, whose house she inhabits. The house is also where her three children—Adrienne (Juliet Binoche), Frédèric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—grew up. The children make light of her old age. The most attached, Frédéric, even tries to deny it altogether, but the fact is that Hélène knows her time is short and is trying to settle what becomes of things after her death in the most pragmatic manner possible. She knows that which Frédéric refuses to see: that the house will have to be sold and the collections auctioned off or given to the state in lieu of taxes. She realizes that her children—Adrienne lives in New York City, Jérémie in China—are not a part of this past any longer, and that her grandchildren are even less so.
No sooner does she die than the mechanics of all this are put into play and much comes to the surface—much of it with very sly observational detail. Frédéric is easily outvoted, much to his sorrow, but among his siblings he’s shown to be the least in tune with the reality of his late mother. They blandly accept the idea—their assumption of it—that Hélène’s devotion to their uncle was the result of an affair. The idea, which turns out to be true, slightly horrifies Frédéric—a man not trying to preserve the past as he thinks, but rather trying to preserve his childhood image of a past that never quite existed.
The film glides through a series of similar revelations—registering a quiet sadness at the prospect of a society that is becoming devoid of a sense of its own history. Two of the children—Adrienne and Jérémie—don’t even feel especially connected to France. But Assayas isn’t out to present a tract against our growing globalized society. There’s something far deeper going on here. The film isn’t just about accepting the passage of time; it offers the sense that what is now being dismantled was itself the result of people who in their own way had rejected—or moved away from—an earlier past. This is made quite clear, but only if the viewer is willing to pay attention to every detail of the film. Nothing is arbitrary in Summer Hours. Understand that each event, each piece of information, each ironic detail is in place for a reason. Do that, and you’ll find a remarkable work—one that eschews sentiment in favor of celebration and hope. Not rated, but contains adult themes, language, some drug use and a lot of French folks smoking.