Thursday, December 24, 2009
Summer Hours ***1/2
Director: Olivier Assayas,
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier
Edith Scob, Isabelle Sadoyan, Valérie Bonneton, Dominique Reymond
Kyle Eastwood, Alice de Lencquesaing, Emile Berling
By its definition a museum is a place where objects of permanent value are preserved and displayed, but how we deem something valuable and museum worthy is the nature of Olivier Assayas' touching exploration.
"Summer Hours" starts during the celebration of Hélène's (Scob) 75th birthday, she doesn't look a day past fifty but is contemplating what will happen once she's dead.
She inherited a country house from her uncle-a famous painter-who filled the place with invaluable art pieces and furniture.
Hélène lives alone except for her maid Éloïse (Sadoyan) and takes advantage of her birthday celebration to talk serious matter with her children.
Jérémie (Renier) the youngest, lives with his wife (Bonneton) in China, the middle one, Adrienne (Binoche) is an artist who lives in New York with her boyfriend (Eastwood).
Only Frédéric (Berling) the eldest remains in France and is supposed to take care of the estate after his mother's demise.
The three of them spend the celebration ignoring her wishes, out of children's fear of their parents' death or in a rush to get back to their lives, and leave reassuring themselves their mom will live forever.
She obviously doesn't and after she passes way they must return to take charge of the estate.
The second in a series of films commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay, "Summer Hours" then takes a turn as the children decide to get rid of the collection to aid themselves financially.
With a plot meant for melodrama (should they sell their childhood memories?) Assayas crafts a lovely meditation on life that doesn't involve a single false move.
Hélène's death is treated in the most unceremonious of ways (making us wonder if she felt like a museum piece herself) and the subsequent meetings with museum officers and lawyers are treated like adult transactions.
The issues are never reduced to arbitrary tantrums and unnecessary dramas, Assayas treats us like the characters treat each other. For some their decisions might seem heartless and rushed, while others will identify with the painfulness of growing up portrayed so unaffectingly by the great actors.
Throughout the film we observe how they each appraise their own lives. For Adrienne her mother's objects are weighed down by the past while Éloïse sees them as souvenirs of a life well lived. In the film's most touching moment she fills a vase with flowers and places it on her employer's desk.
"Empty vases were like death to her" she says, ignoring the fact that, minutes before, said vase was discovered to be a priceless piece by a famous artist.
This may be the whole point of Assayas film; is art valued because of the memories and personal experiences we put to it or is it some sort of sacred concept defined by abstract concepts?
Once we're dead, and even when we're living, our memories can't be displayed in museums, but their value to us can be as worthy as a million dollar antique we might own.
"Summer Hours" invites us to spend a little more time contemplating the pieces next time we're in a museum, at one time those too belonged to someone who imprinted them with memories.
But we must also treat those at home as if they were pieces of invaluable art.