Watched “Summer Hours” with WL at the Quad yesterday. The Times’s A. O. Scott thinks it is a masterpiece despite its apparently modest ambition. I think the film, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is rather more modest in its success.
Three siblings, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), have to decide what to do with their inheritance—a charming country house holding a valuable art collection—after their mother’s death. While Frédéric wants to keep the house and art together for their children, Jérémie and Adrienne want to sell and, to minimize taxes, donate the art to a museum. The film sees things mainly through Frédéric’s eyes, though, to its credit, sympathizes with the other two globetrotting siblings as well.
The family house is not a new symbol for national patrimony. Here it is divided not just by the old power of death, but also by the newer forces of globalization. Jérémie, who works for a sneakers company, sees his future in its Chinese operations. Adrienne, a designer, is about to marry an American, the artistic director of an internet magazine. As an economist, Frédéric understands the forces that separate his family, but is unable to stop the separation. Tellingly, his new book is about the impossibility of directing the international economy. My reservation about the film is how telling each detail is. The actors are impeccable and nuanced in their roles, but their characters feel like so many chess pieces on a predetermined game board. They are illustrative, beautifully so (director of photography is Eric Gautier), but still illustrative; they lack the vital potential for surprise that makes characters compelling.
The film is very careful in its construction. The opening scene, of the children playing in the garden, is matched by the closing scene of them throwing a party in the house, Frédéric’s daughter and her boyfriend climbing over a wall to be by themselves, like Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden. Yet the care in construction makes puzzling unnecessary scenes like the meeting between the museum curators to decide whether to accept the family’s art collection. The later part of the film feels a little leaden, a tedium Scott mentions in his review, but dismisses as the likely reaction of less sophisticated audiences.
Most interesting to me is the passion shared between the mother Hélène (Edith Scob) and her uncle Berthier, a noted artist who put together the art collection. This incestuous relationship is a twist on the family house trope. Keep it all within the family is a kind of incest. As is typical of the French, the incest is seen by the film as beautiful, rather than repugnant. Frédéric the eldest child is the only one disturbed by the thought of it; his disturbance is meant to be read, perhaps, as a sign of his jealous love for his mother, a love that makes sense of his desire to preserve what she has preserved out of her own love for her uncle. We don’t see anything of that love between uncle and niece (no indulgence in flashbacks), and so the film misses an opportunity to show what is individual in the rather generalized emotions depicted.