Summer Hours Review
The progress from one generation to the next, the necessity of respecting one’s heritage while embracing modernity and multiculturalism have long been a part of the work of Olivier Assayas, right from his first feature film Désordre, showing a small group of rebellious youths in a rock band seeking to expand into the international market, but finding that their generation’s music is in its dying stages and that they are unable to step away from the self-destructive path they have embarked upon. To some extent those themes, bearing the influence of his Asian filmmaking mentors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, remain consistent throughout the director’s work, though they have strayed somewhat into filmmaking as a broad-based international or pan-European enterprise in his more recent films, Clean and Boarding Gate. The director’s latest film, originating from a commission by a Paris museum the Musée d’Orsay, sees Assayas draw those themes back to a more intimate and personal level, and sees them resonate with echoes of his past works and a newfound maturity.
Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été) opens initially at a reunion of the Berthier family at their home in the country, the family discussing what to do about the inheritance that their mother Hélène (Edith Scob) knows that she will one day have to leave behind. Those gathered consider how to deal with the family home and its contents, precious furniture, objects d’art, paintings and sketchbooks that once belonged to their uncle Paul Berthier, a famous painter whose work is still of considerable importance, with a new book being published and with a retrospective of his work being organised in San Francisco.
These scenes, which form the majority of the film, are rather prosaic, involving a lot of family talk and reminiscence, with lengthy discussions about how best to deal with the weighty inheritance that is being placed in their hands, a legacy that having their own lives and families to take care of, they are too busy to deal with – but these are themes that have the essential truth of an Ozu film and the underlying acuity of human values and behaviour that can be observed in a Chekhov drama. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), is a designer living in New York who prefers objects not to be weighed down by the past and doesn’t see herself coming back to visit the country house too often. Her brother Jeremie (Jérémie Renier), working in the footwear industry, is currently based in China with his wife and children, overseeing the factories where the goods are manufactured. It’s left to Frédéric (Charles Berling), an academic and economist based in Paris, as the elder son to make the difficult decisions on how to divide up the property, torn between pragmatic necessity and nostalgia for what the old house and its contents mean to them all, seeing them not as objects d’art, but as an everyday part of the household they grew up in.
If the dilemma is made real in Summer Hours it’s because it’s a familiar subject that Assayas has examined in past works, most evidently in Les Destinées Sentimentales, particularly with the Charles Berling connection as the head of a family faced with the upheaval of a major social change into a new modern world. But perhaps less evidently, the themes even extend back to what would appear to be the key film in Assayas’s career and even his mission-statement, Irma Vep. Just as a film director there grappled with the legacy of the past in an abortive attempt to update Feuillade’s Les Vampires, struggling to be creative and open to modernity in the face of the conservatism of the French movie-industry, so too in Summer Hours Frédéric faces a similar challenge over reverence for a legacy that is undoubtedly still important, but which belongs in the past. If it’s a past that he can barely remember himself, it means even less to his own children and in order to move on he needs to let it go – just as his mother recognises and advises him at their last reunion together – but the wrench is painful and, even after the act is done, he still agonises over the decision, wishing he had at least kept the Corots.
It’s telling that the all-important final scene of the film is one that also very closely resembles an equivalent moment in Assayas’s other great work, L’Eau Froide. The echo to that film has already been made with a scene of parental anger between Frédéric and his daughter over a shoplifting incident – a scene of generational conflict that mirrors his own relationship with his mother, Hélène’s own act of rebellion from social expectations similarly being one that Frédéric is reluctant to accept. The final scene of the film however features a flowing Steadicam sweep across a gathering of youths now assembled in the house of old memories, now stripped bare of its past. The message is unmistakable. Like L’Eau Froide, it’s not just purely an act of rebellion, but an expression of freedom – each succeeding generation needing to put its own affairs in place and leave the next with the freedom to direct their own lives, free from the restrictions of their parents’ influence, hang-ups and problems, free from a different culture that has less relevance in a changing modern world. As the final scene shows however in both its content and its means of expression, capturing a moment of warmth and beauty that has the quality of one of the Monet paintings that you can see in the Musée d’Orsay itself, the past and one’s heritage are not forgotten – they form an essential part of who we are and still hold meaning – but they must make way for a new means of expression in order to thrive.
More than just being a small story of one wealthy family then, Summer Hours raises profound questions in regard to art and its relationship with people, but through the dialectic it raises in the conflict between the Berthier family it can also lay claim to being a living form of art itself rather than a film as a stuffy museum piece, taking in wider generational and social implications. The split that occurs in the Berthier family may not be acrimonious, each of the family members naturally drifting away from each other and even from France as they follow the natural direction of their lives in a new globalised culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less painful. As a consequence, it’s not just this one family that needs to break its ties with the past and be open to the possibilities of the future, which has relevance not only for France but the larger globalised world we are all a part of. As he did with the movie industry in Irma Vep, here in Summer Hours then Assayas is throwing down a challenge to the French art and social establishments to remain relevant to the way people live their lives today.
Summer Hours is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The film looks well on DVD, presented anamorphically and progressively at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but seems to me to be rather more coolly toned than the theatrical presentation of the film, the yellow warmth of the summer scenes and the deep verdant tones of the country estate subdued for a palette where blues predominate. Be that as it may, the print still looks fabulous, the image clear, the desaturated tones strong, with no marks and no visible grain. Blacks are deep and solid, not showing any great shadow detail, but that would be expected in the light of the interior filming. The transfer shows some issues with macroblocking, registering barely more than a flicker for the most part, but breaking up slightly in a few isolated sections of the frame on at least one occasion. Edge enhancement is minimal.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The surround mix is less direct and booming than the stereo mix, channelling the dialogue principally through the centre speaker, but in both cases there is a slight dullness of tone. The constant twittering of birds spread across the surrounding channels may be a little excessive and distracting however, so the stereo track could be a valid option.
English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font. They are not present for the few lines of English dialogue spoken between Juliette Binoche in her scene with Kyle Eastwood.
The interviews included in the extra features are in English and consequently not subtitled either. The Interview with Olivier Assayas (23:17) covers the long and complicated rote to getting the film made, initially for the Musée d’Orsay, and then taking the theme off on his own direction after consulting with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Juliette Binoche. He talks about the importance of the casting and his approach to the subject and themes of the film and the importance of the choices of objects d’art. In the Interview with Jérémie Renier (15:27), the actor talks about the challenges the film demanded of him, the experience of working with more experienced actors like Juliette Binoche, as well thoughts about his character and the role he plays in the themes that come up in the film. A short Trailer (1:46) summarises well what the film is about.
Summer Hours resembles nothing so much as a reworking of familiar Olivier Assayas material, but each film is seen from a fresh viewpoint and each bears the wealth of the filmmaker’s own personal growth, gaining an accumulated weight through his expression of that experience in his films. In a delicate and meaningful manner then Summer Hours is able to consider profound questions about the nature of art and its relationship to people, art as something to be stored in a museum, as well as the notion of art as something living, personal and a part of our lives, and consider how that relationship is transforming in a rapidly changing world. Artificial Eye give this film a typically strong presentation on DVD with some informative interviews as extra features.