Monday, June 22, 2009

Movie Review: Summer Hours

Summer Hours *** ½
Directed by:
Olivier Assayas.
Written By: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Adrienne), Charles Berling (Frédéric), Jérémie Renier (Jérémie), Edith Scob (Hélène), Dominique Reymond (Lisa), Valérie Bonneton (Angela), Isabelle Sadoyan (Éloïse), Kyle Eastwood (James), Alice de Lencquesaing (Sylvie), Emile Berling (Pierre), Jean-Baptiste Malartre (Michel Waldemar), Gilles Arbona (Maître Lambert).

Whenever I watch a film by French director Olivier Assayas I am more amazed by what he leaves out of the film, then by what he leaves in. Some of the most important scenes in his movies – the ones that would be the centerpiece in most other films – are absent in his films. Take Boarding Gate for example, which picked up its story well after it started, and ended well before the conclusion. Assayas is not interested in storytelling the way most directors are. That makes him somewhat infuriating at times, but always fascinating. His new film, Summer Hours, seems like a departure for him, as it does not contain all the violence or sex of a film like Boarding Gate or Demonlover. And yet, it actually fits in rather nicely with his other films.

Summer Hours is about three adult siblings who are dealing with the death of their mother. In the film’s opening scenes, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), and their families are visiting their mother Helene (Edit Scob) for her 75th birthday party. They are gathered at Helene’s majestic summer home in the French countryside, which she has essentially made into a shrine to her beloved uncle, who was a famous painter. There is not a room in the house that doesn’t contain some great piece of art, or some rare antique furniture or something else worth a lot of money. Helene loves the house, but knows that when she goes, it will most likely have to be sold off, along with everything in it. Adrienne lives in New York now, Jeremie in China, and while Frederic is in Paris, his teenage kids don’t show the same love for the house that he did.

The action then flashes forward an indeterminate amount of time. Months have passed, Helene has died and been buried, and the question of what to do with the house arises. Frederic wants to keep it, but is outvoted by Adrienne and Jeremie, who would rather have the money. Jeremie has a young family he needs to support, and Adrienne is getting married again. Neither lives in the country, and will get no use from the house, or anything inside it.

The film is not an emotional tearjerker, and neither is it a false melodrama. There is a conflict in the family about what to do with the house and the possessions, not to mention Eloise who has looked after the house for decades, but the film never devolves in hysteria about any of them. There is no yelling or screaming in the film, no big emotional outbursts, not even when it is revealed that Helene and her uncle had a more intimate relationship that an uncle and his niece should have. Adrienne and Jeremie would like to keep the house and the things in it, but they can’t. It just doesn’t make sense to them. Frederic wants to keep it even more, but knows he cannot support it by himself, and he understands where his siblings are coming from. But as the possessions get packed out, and shipped off to various auction houses or museums, there is a regret that hangs over the film. These things will leave a hole in the lives of the children, but then again their mother already left that hole through the simple act of dying.

The performances in the movie are pitch perfect. Binoche is an actress I love when she works in her native language (and often hate when she works in English), and is one of those annoying people who seems to get better looking the older she gets. We start out thinking that she is selfish here, but she really isn’t. She has simply left the past behind her, so that she can build her future. Jeremie Renier, who is quickly becoming the most gifted French actor of his generation, is also quite good as Jeremie, who is simply looking out for his family. And Charles Berlinger as Frederic finds the right notes to play as the oldest sibling – the one who is supposed to be the most responsible, but is becoming frazzled by it all.

I suspect that some people are going to be confused or annoyed by the end of the film. Here is a movie that spends almost all of its time with the adult children of Helene as they deal with the after effects of her death, and yet the finale of the film is a party that Frederic’s teenage children have at the summer house in the final week before the house is sold. The scene simply follows the kids through the now nearly empty house in a series of great tracking shots, and you cannot help but wonder what Assayas is getting at. But by the film’s last scene, the meaning becomes crystal clear. It ties together the past, present and future in a quietly beautiful way. In a word, the end of the film is perfect.

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