Dir. Olivier Assayas
(2008, Not Rated, 102 min)
★ ★ ½
There are touching moments and meaningful connections in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, which is nevertheless lackadaisical in its telling of the story of three French siblings who must decide how they will manage their inheritance after the death of their mother. In style and theme it reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which despite its universal adoration I just couldn’t connect with. I had the same trouble here.
Edith Scob plays Hélène, the seventy-five-year-old mother of three grown children: Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer now living in New York; Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a father of three overseeing sneaker production in China; and the eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), who is an economist and the only sibling still living in France. On her birthday, Hélène gathers her children and grandchildren and discusses plans for her estate; to Frédéric her death is just a morbid hypothetical, but she knows things he doesn’t.
Soon thereafter she passes away. To her children go her valuable antique furniture, glassware, and the sought-after artwork of her uncle Paul Berthier, with whom she might have had an affair. She wished these possessions sold, donated, or otherwise gotten rid of, lest her children be buried under what she has left behind. Frédéric ignores her wishes out of sentimentality, but finds that his mother was right about more than just the state of her health.
There are greatly affecting moments in the film, such as a beautiful shot of Hélène sitting alone in sad contemplation of her memories, belongings, and how she has lost her children to their adult lives. We watch the progress of her beloved objects, which move out of the places of life and experience to become matters for appraisers, curators, lawyers, and real estate brokers. Of special note is a desk, which is first seen messily covered in Hélène’s papers and ends up a museum piece for an indifferent public. Once rich with memory, it now exists merely as an object to be gawked at, briefly considered, and quickly forgotten.
I’m on the fence. I’ve vacillated between ratings, so I’m giving it two-and-a-half stars and calling it a day. I admire the film. I was moved by its moments, compelled by many of its ideas, but I wish I liked it more, and wish it had a clearer point-of-view. Assayas shows us these characters and events, but it’s not always clear the reason for his showing; thus, many of his strongest moments feel isolated, floating. In my review of Tokyo Story, I described Ozu’s similar style as “art under glass.” Seeing his family heirlooms exhibited in their display cases, Frédéric says that they seem caged, and I see Summer Hours much the same way. It’s nice to look at, but oh to have been let inside!