The new French film Summer Hours is a small film, without much in the way of action, but it is a beautiful film nonetheless, not only because of Eric Gautier’s sumptuous cinematography but also because the story of a French family in transition depicts normal familial conflicts without the heavy-handed angst that has come to characterize films about the family both in Europe and America. It also raises questions about globalization and the pull of the modern economy in precisely the way most of us experience them: the promise of a better future elsewhere mixed with the occasional fear of rootlessness and regret over what is left behind.
The film opens with children on a treasure hunt in the lush and spacious yard at the estate of their grandmother, Hélène (Edith Scob). Hélène’s three children — Adrienne (Juliette Binoche of Chocolat and The English Patient), Frédéric (Charles Berling), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) — have returned to the home of their youth with their own families to celebrate Hélène’s 75th birthday. The beautiful home, filled with valuable art, is the setting for a noisy, joyous reunion, filled with light and laughter.
But change is on its way. Hélène pulls Frédéric aside for a blunt talk about death and about what will happen to the house and its treasures once she dies. She assumes he will be in charge of the estate because he is the only child still living in France. She also assumes that financial pressures and geographical necessity will force her children to sell the house and its contents. The son, uncomfortable talking about death at all, insists that they will keep the house and use it for vacations. If the filmmakers capture the genuine affection between mother and son in this scene, they also attend to the way family members’ lives overlap and interact only partially. For example, Frédéric expresses mild resentment over his mother’s apparent indifference to his successful academic and publishing career. One of his books sits at her bedside unread.
An economics professor, Frédéric is skeptical of the power of modern economics, in theory or practice, to provide a reliable path to human happiness. That position brings him into conflict with his brother, Jérémie, a successful businessman now stationed in China, where he is involved in the production of tennis shoes. Meanwhile, Adrienne, a designer in New York, is also critical of Jérémie for his shallow pursuit of profit. But the film gives Jérémie his due and avoids demonizing his capitalist principles. In large part because the film does not strive to make a deep statement about politics or economics — because it stays on the surface of these phenomena — it offers an honest depiction of the way we are pulled in two directions, backward and forward, toward novelty and opportunity and toward retaining the past and cultivating its memories.
The subtle artistry of the film is evident in the longish opening scene at the family estate. After the warmth and activity of the opening celebration, centered upon a home that is both part of its natural surrounding and part of a familial tradition, the mood turns somber, the activity dormant, and the light elusive. Once the family departs, Hélène sits alone in a silent, empty house, as the evening begins and the color turns a deep shade of blue.
The production of Summer Hours began with a proposal from the famed Musée D’Orsay in Paris; on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the museum invited a select group of directors to use the museum as a setting for a series of short films, to be combined into one film. The project, not surprisingly, failed, but, director Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours features the D’Orsay in an important scene in the story — though one that hardly qualifies as a straightforward celebration of that museum or any other. Seeing Hélène’s furniture now on display at the D’Orsay, the children comment on how inanimate the furniture now seems, no longer part of human lives.
Assayas has observed that art gets “embalmed in museums.” He has also said that one of his goals in the film was to illustrate the way places, particularly homes, have souls — the way returning to a home once lived in provokes not just images of the past but a rich set of emotional responses.
For all its focus on adult children, the film does a remarkable job of capturing the ambivalence of young people toward the future and the past. In fact, a rebellious teen of the next generation in Hélène’s family provides a final commentary on her grandmother’s life and the home that has been such an integral part of their lives. Commentary may be too strong a word, as the young girl is barely articulate about these matters, but perhaps for that very reason, it supplies a quite satisfying conclusion to an entrancing film about family and affection, home and tradition, and opportunity and loss in the modern world.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.