‘Summer Hours’ (2008)

Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours is about a French family whose formidable, 75-year-old matriarch (Edith Scob) passes away; the three adult children (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier), who have busy, international careers, must decide what to do with her estate, which is filled with precious heirlooms and bona fide works of art.

Sentiment and nostalgia are swept aside as the children decide (Berling’s character reluctantly going along with the other two) to sell the estate and all its belongings — meaning that all the culture and history embodied by the grand country house wind up on the auction block.

Given France’s understandable tendency to fret about its cultural heritage in the era of merciless globalization, Assayas has crafted a scenario that has all kinds of resonance, without having to reach for the sweeping statement. He handles the siblings’ debates about what to do with the family Corots and objets d’art gracefully, without any speechifying. The movie isn’t a screed against cultural philistinism or globalization. It’s much more clear-eyed than that, as befits a director who has made films all over the world, with international financing.

The U.S. DVD release, on Criterion.

During the movie’s second hour, the plot becomes more diffuse, and is in danger of ebbing away entirely — but only afterward does it become clear how this mirrors the predicament of the three siblings. Once the house and its belongings are sold, their reason for being together is also gone. What was once centered will now be rootless, dispersed.

Only when the movie was over did I fully appreciate the moment when Binoche’s character, heading back to her design gig in NYC, says goodbye to her brothers, all three of them slightly wistful, but also with a forced casualness, so that they don’t have to acknowledge that they may not see each other for years, and indeed that with their mother gone and the estate sold they may no longer see much of each other at all.

Whatever reservations I might have had during the movie are dispelled by Assayas’ trump card, the final sequence, wherein Berling’s teenage daughter holds a raucous party in the now-empty country house just before it’s about to be sold. In a quietly virtuosic tracking shot, the camera follows the girl in and out of the house as the kids haul in booze and speakers, drink and light up, take turns playing DJ and generally show zero sense of decorum around the stately manor that’s come to seem like a stand-in for la belle France over the preceding 90 minutes. What’s cool about Assayas and his cinematographer Eric Gautier’s technique here is how the exteriors evoke Impressionist light and landscapes on the fly, without preciousness, and in a context that couldn’t seem more modern, French hip-hop booming on the soundtrack.

As the scene plays on, I was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t a little too neat, or obvious — those damn kids, with no respect for l’histoire! But Assayas is more thoughtful than that. In the final minutes, the girl steals away into the estate’s gardens with her boyfriend; viewing the house from a slight remove, she breaks down and expresses her sense of loss and disappointment at what’s going to happen to the house, despite having shown only indifference as her parents debated what to do earlier. The moment is bittersweet and stinging at the same time.

In a film of quiet triumphs, the greatest such might be the casting. Compared to 99 percent of all movies, where actors are cast as family members with a surreal disregard for how little they resemble each other, Edith Scob and Juliette Binoche are unusually convincing as elderly mother and grown-up daughter, and Binoche, Berling and Renier make unusually believable siblings. (Meanwhile Binoche’s character has a boyfriend who is played by jazz musician Kyle Eastwood, son of Clint, which I had trouble assimilating; it felt like too many different universes colliding together.)

A few years ago Binoche seemed in danger of playing nothing but stained-glass heroines, Our Lady of the Arthouse, but her performances here and in Flight of the Red Balloon are a model of actorly reinvention. The mysterious, rarefied icon of beautifully lit suffering is now earthy and accessible, not to mention abrasive. In Summer Hours her character Adrienne demonstrates some spiky wit, particularly in the early scenes; the latter half of the movie could use more of the pleasantly snarky charge she brings. The film’s best moment comes when Adrienne, just in from NYC, shows off her sneakers to her brothers: Binoche’s to-die-for French pronunciation of “Converse” might be the best argument ever made for globalization.

Watch the trailer for Summer Hours, courtesy of the Criterion Collection:

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