L'heure d'été (Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)
Sometimes we see a sunset so awe-inspiring, it takes the breath away and one wishes we could bottle it. We know this to be impossible, but then Carlos Reygadas comes along and gives us Silent Light. Similarly, a film occasionally seems to come close to capturing emotions in a rare, almost transcendent way. Like plutonic love in the final scene of Lost in Translation, or grief in Three Colours: Blue.
In Summer Hours, an understated and nuanced family drama, Olivier Assayas has not only crafted a multi-layered and authentic story about generational change, but also captured something magical, something everyday and universal in a very special way.
Summer Hours is a story about family, about secrets, competing expectations, hopes and dreams. It’s about loss, change and disappointment. “All things must pass”, sang George Harrison, a truism that is at the core of the film. Some accept that and others have trouble letting go. The essence that Assayas has bottled is nostalgia, the sadness of the passing of the guard as one generation passes, mixed with the joys and aspirations of a new one.
What happens when a person with memories and possessions accumulated over a lifetime, reaches the end of the road? We can divide things up. Some things are taken by one party, some by another. Some things are lost or given away. In examining the small details of this aspect of life, Assayas demonstrates that he has a keen eye, and authentically depicts how death in a family can variously affect the family members.
The confidence of the direction is apparent, with Assayas refraining from putting into words that which can be conveyed visually. A “less is more” methodology gives the film a satisfying aesthetic, as we are left to discover and ruminate on the little details of the picture Assayas has painted. The cinematography supports this structure, with fluid movements of a roving camera that gives a sense that we are observers within the family.
An example of an unexplained detail is Frédéric (Charles Berling) appearing with a beard for a while. This is not uncommon when someone has died, particularly in Europe. Without words drawing attention to it, some may not notice this detail, and for the observant there are many like this.
The film’s ambiance strongly reflects the title’s suggestion of season. The use of light, scenery and sound all convey a sense of time and place. The sound in particular seems heightened, whether it’s birds singing or the click of a car’s seat belt, and creates an awareness of things occurring inside and outside the camera’s frame.
If the use of artistic items in the film looks authentic, it’s because many of them are genuine pieces provided by Musée d’Orsay, who apparently originally commissioned the film to commemorate the institution’s 20th anniversary. In the story, the family has a history of involvement in art. The film highlights that objects you may admire in a museum case were once everyday objects for people used in often mundane ways.
There’s something about Juliette Binoche – no stranger to films about grief – as a blonde that doesn’t quite work for me. I noticed it in The Flight of the Red Balloon, and I found it a little distracting in this film, too. As a 40-something, she didn’t quite look authentic. Binoche and Jérémie Renier are both fine actors I have high regard for, though Renier, as a 20-something, isn’t completely convincing as a 40-something. Mind you, it’s the film’s marketing, not the film itself that tells us his age, so this is only a minor quibble.
The main character of the film is Berling’s Frédéric, and who is most convincing. It is he who is most disturbed by the compromises to be made for family unity. Through him we understand how one’s visions of the future can collapse, and how grief is not just about what is lost, but also about what can no longer be. Dreams and expectations vanish.
The film is bookended with children playing. Ironically, the start includes a treasure hunt. The ending provides a bridge between past and future. Summer Hours is a very satisfying film, of a quality we don’t see enough of outside of MIFF and the French Film Festival. It doesn’t fit into the gritty milieu of films like say, Private Property or The Child, but nor is it a run-of-the-mill family melodrama. This is serious adult drama that is neither shocking nor challenging, but both entertaining, moving and thought-provoking.
A final point in passing: I shudder to think how much of this film’s subtlety will by spoiled by reviews that deprive the reader of any mystery of the story’s unfolding. My suggestion is just see it, no questions asked.
Summer Hours is screening at the French Film Festival, between 5 and 19 March (in Melbourne) and is being released in cinemas on 2 April.