Summer Hours (L’heure
d’été), 102 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas 2
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
This summer brought with it, as it often does, several films that
beautifully depict the long, hot, languid days of the season. Woody
Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (LSJ, Dec 2008) was one. Olivier
Assayas’ Summer Hours is another. Allen’s film was set in Barcelona,
and Assayas’ film is set in the Ile de France region, in a town that’s
50 minutes by train from Paris.
The film opens with a group of young kids playing in a garden. We soon
learn that this is a gathering of the Marly family, to celebrate the
75th birthday of the matriarch, who is not particularly pleased to have
a fuss made of her. Hélène (Edith Scob) is not as
interested in getting presents and drinking champagne as she is in
putting her affairs in order. And so she takes her eldest son, Frederic
(Charles Berling) aside and gives him an inventory of all of the
important and valuable things in her home.
But this is no ordinary family home. It’s the home of a famous
(fictional) artist, Paul Berthier, Helene’s uncle, who had amassed -
and willed to her - a most valuable collection of 19th century art
nouveau furniture and other artworks. So the scene is set for a
fascinating exploration some very big questions:
1. What will we do when Mum (or Dad) dies? – the
question no son or daughter wants to ask.
2. What should we leave behind when we die?
3. What is the role of precious objects in our lives?
Should they be sold, and placed in museums, or should they continue to
be used and loved by those to whom they have a special meaning?
In examining these issues, the director uses the family home, its
precious (and not-so precious) contents, and its gorgeous gardens, as a
metaphor for culture, tradition, ownership, and heritage. The way
Assayas portrays the house is quite exceptional. It’s photographed with
a kind of reverence, and yet with great warmth. Is this a museum,
Assayas and his cinematographer Eric Gautier seem to be asking with
each carefully-framed view? Or is it a home? Should it be kept
as-is forever? Is there scope for another family to call it home?
On the fringes, there’s Eloise, the faithful family housekeeper
(Isabelle Sadoyan). Her life has been inextricably linked to the house,
the garden, its contents, and the family. What is to happen to her
after Hélène dies? Is she to be disposed of like a mere
chattel? What is her life beyond the family home? What role does she
have in preserving the memories of the home?
As if these issues weren’t enough, the film also delves into the
relationship between Hélène’s 40-something children, each
of whom lives a different sort of life. There’s Frédéric,
an economist, who lives in Paris and wants to retain the status quo.
There’s Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) who’s a designer of modern
homewares and lives in New York. And there’s Jérémie
(Jérémie Renier) who lives and works in Beijing. This is
not the traditional French family.
Assayas also carefully includes the position of the next generation, as
portrayed by the teenaged children of Frédéric. The
surprising final scenes give us a sensitive and moving glimpse of the
way these kids view the past, and its relationship to their future.
Summer Hours is a thoughtful and comprehensive film. It looks at issues
that will one day confront us all, though perhaps not on such a grand
scale. It explores what Hélène so poetically, yet
matter-of-factly calls “La suite” (what comes after), and another
character calls “La maison après elle”.