Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

Artificial Eye Film Company
Olivier Assayas/France 2008

Commissioned along with four other directors by Paris’ Musée d’Orsay to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Olivier Assayas has wrested a triumph from a seemingly mundane story: the death of a member of the bourgeoisie and the family divisions that ensue. His reverberative and multi-layered drama has echoes which suggest a state-of-the-nation portrait of France. Unlike Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon however – in which the museum graced a couple of final scenes – here it plays a crucial role in resolving a family dilemma. The thematic importance is signaled early in the film, by a sombre piano and cello soundtrack.

The death of their still-beautiful mother (Edith Scob) acts as a catalyst for three well-heeled 40something siblings, forcing them to articulate their future plans. The jointly inherited family mansion stuffed with objets d’art is irrelevant to the younger brother and sister, (Jérémie Renier and Juliette Binoche) with their successful overseas careers.

Now the house and its idyllic surroundings are simply a venue for the annual family reunion. The numerous members, including offspring and friends, are first glimpsed playing a game of treasure-hunt in the overgrown orchard as the matriarch attempts to talk about the future to elder son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), in denial about the profound changes that will result from his mother’s demise.

Preserved in memory of an artist-cum-collector uncle, the priceless artworks, furniture, paintings and designer porcelain will incur heavy death duties which may swallow up most of the inheritance. The answer, advises the family lawyer, is to donate them to “the nation”, in effect the Musée d’Orsay, enabling the sale of the house to go ahead. The rough and tumble of family life and passing years have in any case already taken their toll on the heirlooms.

Frédéric, the only legatee still permanently resident in France, at first assumes the house will be kept in the family. However, the younger siblings’ career development plans and worries about family expenses soon emerge to dampen his hopes.

Although best known outside France for his least typical film Irma Vep, director Olivier Assayas here pays homage to Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsiao-hsien with a cherry-orchard nod in Anton Chekhov’s direction. Despite restrained acting and the low-key discussions which comprise much of the narrative, the film is remarkably engaging. As details of a family scandal slowly emerge, with oblique echoes of Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché (Hidden), parallels emerge between the lives of the restless siblings, the role of cultural heritage and the corrosion of national identity.

Carefully nuanced performances from the actors, whose restrained body language and reticence are punctuated by subtly contradictory gestures, suggest their inner conflict. Berling as Frédéric achieves a poignant acceptance that is conveyed indirectly, particularly in a scene where he leaves a discussion and his wife finds him weeping in a darkened room.

Rainier as the younger brother, recently seen as a brash gangster in In Bruges, demonstrates his versatility as the brother forced to act in the interests of his wife and children, while Binoche adds depth to the relatively minor role of the troubled sister who feels most directly the “weight” of the past. It seems no accident that one of the younger siblings will go to live in China, one in America.

Theoretical arguments about private versus publicly owned artifacts are aired when Frédéric and his wife visit the delightful Musée d’Orsay itself. Where Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon highlighted the educative role of the museum, here the audience is treated to a tour of workshops and storerooms, café and furniture gallery as the couple muse on the effects of public exhibition on domestic artifacts. At the same time, it offers closure: the future with its changes must be accepted and the younger generations freed from the obligations of the past. In a charming coda even the valued old retainer, Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) is rewarded for her loyalty; the director, at the end of this finely balanced meditation on the break-up of the ancien régime offers his last words most effectively through the voice of Frédéric’s troubled teenage daughter.

© 2008 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.

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