Sunday, June 21, 2009

SUMMER HOURS

Olivier Assayas is an odd auteur to watch. His writing/directing career during the Aughts has been one of two faces: the family drama & the corporate sex-crime thriller. Les Destinees, Clean, and Summer Hours are in the first camp, while Demonlover and Boarding Gate belong to the latter. I've yet to spend the mind time and brain energy deducing whether there is a thread that connects all five of these, but for certain, I feel I can proclaim Summer Hours as the greatest among them. Both a personal and a worldly film, Assayas uses a scenario of sibling circumstance in the aftermath of a passing parent to mourn the fading away of culture and of his home country (France) as a whole... or, in the end, does he?

Beginning with the flickering image of a French country estate on a hill, the camera cuts to a stream of children zig-zagging through the estate's shrubbery fast into some kind of makeshift treasure hunt. In 10 seconds, Summer Hours has amassed 40 years of familial history. This day is the birthday of Helene (Edith Scob), the mother of three children, and the grandmother to even more. A modern economy has spread Helene's children out around the globe: Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is in New York, Jeremie (the handsome Jeremie Renier) is in Peking, and Frederic (Charles Berling) still resides in France. Each of the sibling's immediate families and professional responsibilities have shifted their attentions away from their childhood home and rural past. Helene does not resent her children for a relationship that's been reduced to an annual summer visit, but she is lonely, totally aware that her life has been lived.

With subtlety, Assayas surveys the gaps between the three generations of native Parisians in Summer Hours, gaps that, he argues, may be wider than what existed in previous French societies. But Assayas is no snob. He does not mock the pop-culture tastes of an Americanized youth, or the passing casual interests of tourists being guided through museums of French art history. Rather, Assayas is acknowledging change, accepting an oncoming future where France is no longer the harbinger of influence it once was (it is no coincidence that Adrienne works in the United States and Jeremie in China... the two biggest hubs of international business). When Frederic shows his son a valuable painting hanging in his mother's house, the teenager shrugs and explains, "It's from another era". And when Helene unveils her collection of antique tea sets for Adrienne, she disclaims, "I don't want to weigh you down with objects from another era."

The title, "Summer Hours", recalls the plaintive headings Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu gave to his later-day films that narrowed-in on the widening cultural shifts between generations in post-WWII Japan. Like Assayas does in Summer Hours, Ozu often expressed a sadness for traditions and cultural norms that were on their inevitable way out, but he never showed contempt for a fast-moving and quickly approaching future. However, acceptance does not demand letting go as Frederic, the oldest sibling, does his last-minute best to preserve pieces of the past for his children to cherish. Frederic fitfully obsesses over a decision to sell his mother's two Corot paintings (weighing yourself down with objects from another era indeed), but his regret is countered by the discovery that Helene often used her valuable art furniture pieces for their practicality... such as storage of cleaning products.

It is Summer Hours' magnificent final sequence that brings the movie's sentiments full circle and hints that Assayas' earlier conclusions (or rather, ours) may have been premature. Frederic's children decide to throw a party at their grandmother's house before it's officially sold away. The teenagers behave exactly as we'd expect them to: smoking, blaring loud pop music from iBooks, bouncing basketballs inside the house, slinging around plastic bags of beer and snack food. Sylvie, Frederic's daughter, goes to find her boyfriend by the pond. They take a walk and she shares a memory about her grandmother, a reflection from a point-of-view we've been shut out of up to this point. Sylvie ends her story with, "My grandmother's dead. Her house is gone." That directness is more profound than anything expressed by one of the adults, but it is also quickly swallowed as Sylvie and her boyfriend climb a brick wall and run into the woods like young lovers do. The "summer hours" are these, the times the younger generation are enjoying now, and not the forgotten ones once shared with Helene. Or, maybe it's a continuation of them.

8 comments:

Marilyn said...

This is a fabulous, insightful review of a film that didn't quite reach me. I feel I understand it better now that you've articulated the sentiments so beautifully. Thanks!

Fox said...

Thanks Marilyn. You're so kind!

Did you put up a review of this previously? I like to think I keep good tabs on your new postings, but I can't recall one on Summer Hours.

BTW... I thought of you when I realized that Jeremie was the actor from two of the Dardenne Bros. movies.

Greg said...

Marilyn, who I'm stalking today, has never said anything that nice about a review I wrote. Why am I always so jealous of Marilyn's praise for others? Damn you Fox!

Marilyn said...

No, Fox, I didn't review it. I felt that I couldn't be fair to it, seeing as my personal history took an edge off the film for me (I just settled my mother's estate 2.5 years ago).

Marilyn said...

Greg - You are afflicted with the green-eyed monster more than other bloggers I read.

And maybe if you'd rigged the Name the Movie contest...

Greg said...

I just want acceptance. And some kind of monetary tribute would be nice.

Fox said...

Greg-

You're one of the most complimented film blogger around, dude!! But I think it's hard for you to accept that. I bet Andrew Sarris and Roger Ebert could do a duel video tribute to you & Cinema Styles and you would still need more validation!!! :)

As far as money, well, I'm willing to sell out whenever you are buddy! Maybe we could start some kind of gossip site. It would be called Actor Wrecks (inspired by that totally awesome pastry site), and we could post unsavory pictures of actors & actresses and make fun of them and then win Comedy Blog of 2009 and appear on Extra and sign contracts with the E! network and move to LA and become fat.

Sam Juliano said...

This is a fantastic review of a film that deserves this kind of treatment. It may in fact at this point of 2009 be the finest film of the year.

This is marvelous:

"The title, "Summer Hours", recalls the plaintive headings Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu gave to his later-day films that narrowed-in on the widening cultural shifts between generations in post-WWII Japan. Like Assayas does in Summer Hours, Ozu often expressed a sadness for traditions and cultural norms that were on their inevitable way out, but he never showed contempt for a fast-moving and quickly approaching future."

I can envision Ozu directing this kind of material. I love the way you describe the opening with the flickering image to th ending that has come full circle. Passion, as always beings out a writer's most sublime qualities and you should be proud of this piece. Assayas has never made a better film.