Heirlooms and Their Heirs: Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours

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At the outset of Olivier Assayas’ pensive and wonderfully impressionistic Summer Hours, grandchildren traipse around a restful, sun-dappled estate just outside the hectic reaches of Paris. The mood here is warm, conversational, and inviting. The villa belongs to 75-year-old Hélène (Edith Scob of Eyes Without a Face fame), a widow so aware of her dwindling days that she pulls eldest son Frédéric (an exemplary Charles Berling) aside during her birthday fete to go over the home’s litany of valuable objets d’art that have been present since the time of the past resident, Paul Berthier, an illustrious painter and Hélène’s uncle (a relationship perhaps a tad more amorous than avuncular). Included in the priceless inventory are two Corot landscapes, decorative Odilon Redon panels, an orchid desk by Louis Majorelle, and a few Félix Bracquemond vases — all paragons of 19th century French art.

Like Assayas’ recent, internationalist trilogy (Boarding Gate, Clean, and Demonlover), Summer Hours looks at the minuses of rootless globalization, this time through the melancholic lens of loss and inheritance. Globalization may flatten the world, Assayas tells, but it also “flux” it up with everyone on the move, no one seeing eye to eye, let alone family. So after the inevitable — delicately introduced through Frédéric’s selection of a plot of land — the three siblings decide to settle estate matters as musketeers would: all for one.

Frédéric — whose final gift to his mother was a telephone with three sets — obviously wishes to maintain familial continuity and thus expresses his desire (one he expects reciprocated) to retain the estate intact as a sort of outsized keepsake. He is the undisputed champion of the left-behind, the only one who hasn’t bid adieu to France for the high seas. On the other side, entrepreneurial and thoroughly modern younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) offers a simple bottom line: his career as a sneaker factory supervisor has made Beijing his new postal code for the next five, quota-dictated years and he simply needs the cash to uproot and resettle. As the deciding vote, flighty Manhattan-based designer Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, unbelievable per usual) first voices her upcoming marriage to her long-time boyfriend (Clint’s son Kyle Eastwood) before selling on Frédéric’s hope for posterity. Frédéric is broken up over the unsentimental, yet rational verdict; for Jérémie and, to a lesser extent, Adrienne (she retains a yen for a few pieces), these artworks only hold future economic security, and although the past may be mourned and shared, it’s also just that: past. Assayas presents these younger siblings now as rootless, but never ruthless in their new-world values.

Still “a lot goes unspoken in a family,” Adrienne airs, and Assayas potently lets that mystery linger like a gentle fog, with the three leads’ naturalistic give-and-take—criticisms are only broadcasted once the sibling is out of ear-wave — in perfectly believable support of that all-too-common notion. Instead, the ensuing vignettes (of which the film consists, each separated by lovely fades) detail the appraisal, preparation, and sale of the house and its historic parts — particular concern is expressed over a severe estate tax. Soon enough, Jérémie and Adrienne disappear into cars heading away and never reappear, their narrative utility exhausted like the old French one-offs they’ve rejected for future, country-less, mass-made objects such as Puma sneakers and the mod dishware that Adrienne designs. In an especially revelatory sequence, we see the behind-the-cordon operations of the Musée d’Orsay, such as priceless paintings and sculptures being stored, maintained, and restored, as well as the folks whose lives are rooted in the upkeep of the past. To be brief: it has the feel of a well-run laboratory.

Indeed, Assayas is most interested in the subjective ability of objects to move. Late in the film, a Bracquemond vase appears encased at the museum for spectators to behold, so to speak, but it pales in recalled comparison to an earlier one filled with wildflowers. Then there’s a broken Degas statue (from a childhood run-in), whose true value lies not in the what-if — though we see it reassembled later, its talismanic aura diminished as its artistic merit rises — but the laughs it elicits at the memory of the incident. Even the unopened telephone bears value with a simple post-it note in unpolished handwriting: “Call Frédéric to set up phone.” Throughout, Assayas astutely deploys these objects as he would a cast, such as when Hélène holds up Berthier’s sketch of a room while in the actual room to almost stereoscopically compare between past and present. Intricate, telltale little events like that lend the picture its loveliness and its elegant depth.

Hélène’s early lament that her children “have lives of their own” is echoed in the bittersweet final stanza, in which Frédéric’s teenage daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) throws one last, raging shindig at the estate. Throughout, the same yawning chasm between mother and son has haunted father and daughter, but here Assayas grants Sylvie a heartfelt moment of reflection, even as booming French rap unceremoniously announces the arrival of a new order. It’s a direct, yet quiet response to her brother’s unconcerned, knee-jerk reaction to the Corots — “they’re OK, but it’s another era” — and ties together the lost past and the uncertain après on a note that shades both regret and resolution.

Click here to read indieWIRE’ interview with Thayas on Summer Hours over on indieWIRE.