Tuesday, June 9, 2009
By Elise Nakhnikian
At the New York Film Festival premiere of Summer Hours, writer/director Olivier Assayas called it his Cherry Orchard. That’s a bold analogy, but it holds up. By mining the emotions of a haute-bourgeois clan as its adult children sell the family estate, this elegiac work of art captures the ebb and flow of a family’s life across generations – and the decommissioning of an aging empire and its ruling class.
Summer Hours was conceived as part of a series of short films the Musée d’Orsay planned to sponsor for its 20th anniversary. “The notes that I was scribbling initially were about how an artwork has a life cycle,” Assayas told viewers at the film festival. “It lives its life among individuals in households and at some point it ends up buried in a museum.”
The museum abandoned the project, but not until Assayas had created a back story for his imaginary objects. In explaining what they’d meant to people over the years and how they wound up in a museum, he created a whole family, including three adult children who represent different aspects of himself, and he wanted to tell their story.
We first meet the family at its estate, a beautiful French country house with a rambling yard. Cinematographer Eric Gautier’s fluid camera follows kids and dogs as they swarm through the house and grounds, pausing to take note of the live-in housekeeper, Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan). Also there is the kids’ elegant, strong-willed grandmother, Hélène (Edith Scob), who lives there, plus her three grown children, and their spouses, who have gathered to celebrate Hélène’s birthday.
Six months later, the family is back for Hélène’s funeral. Between mourning their mother and speculating about her life, the adult “kids” – Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier, a favorite of the masterful Dardenne brothers), and Frédéric (Charles Berling) – decide what to do with the house and its treasures, some of which are so special that a world-class museum wants to acquire them.
The economical yet realistic dialogue and the excellent cast, which includes some of the best naturalistic actors working today, capture the emotional ebb and flow of a family: the jokes and shared memories that keep these adult children together, their differences in temperament; the obligations and interests that pull them apart.
Assayas, an early aficionado of Asian film (he was once married to actress Maggie Cheung, who starred in two of his movies) has long been attuned to how globalization is changing life in his native France. He carries that theme into Summer Hours, which looks at how the global economy is, as he put it, “basically tearing apart families and transforming ancient, traditional cultures.”
Adrienne lives in New York and works as an in-house designer for a high-end Japanese department store. Jérémie works the other end of the global economy, managing a factory in China that makes cheap sneakers. Frédéric, the oldest son, is the only one who stayed close to home, working as an economist at a university near his mother’s estate.
Frédéric loves the house and everything in it and wants to keep it in the family. But Adrienne, who seems to have inherited her mother’s bluntness, has no use for the house or its furnishings. “France neither,” she tosses off nonchalantly. And Jérémie is less interested in the house and its contents than he is in the money they could bring, which he needs to support his growing family.
While we watch them go through the process of selling the estate and go about some of the other business of their lives, the movie’s unhurried pace lets us mull over the other things it touches on – things like what’s lost when someone dies, or how a thing can seem so alive when it’s being used and so lifeless in a museum.
There’s also an eloquent subplot involving Éloise, who the camera persistently and quietly seeks out. We learn about the intimacy and power inequity of her relationship with her employer without ever hearing it discussed, just by watching how she and the family react to her loss. After all, she lost not just her closest companion but her home and her livelihood too, though Frédéric is the only one of Hélène’s children who seems to notice.
The movie ends as it began, with a river of children flowing through the old house and yard for one last party before it’s sold. They’re beautiful kids, full of energy, yet something is off: Dressed in jeans and Converse All-Stars, listening to rap, and riding skateboards, they’re aiming for an American style of cool that they can’t quite attain.
“Like everyone else, they’re into America,” one of the adults said earlier. With their grandmother’s house no longer available to come home to, we feel, they could wind up anywhere. And without a direct link to their rich ancestral history, they would be changed and somehow diminished, like those family furnishings turned museum pieces.