Sunday, April 12, 2009

Summer Hours: fading into autumn

Éloïse & Frédéric

L'heure d'été/Summer Hours is a French language story of family generations. When Hélène Regnier (Edith Scob) dies after her 75 birthday, her two sons Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) have to decide what to do with her home and possessions. Her collection of art and furniture is much sought after, with the Musée d'Orsay as central players. The museum originally commissioned three short films that were never made.

The central theme of “what we leave behind” is familiar one to those of us who are baby boomers. Perhaps this is an advance on the preoccupation of filmmakers with what to do with the old folks. Now it’s how to deal with their passing. Or more cynically, the inheritance.

At a deeper level the film is about coming to terms with the past, about dealing with our formative memories and about how we move on with our lives. But director Olivier Assayas is primarily concerned with present relationships and the way people envision their own legacy:
“But the flow of life, which brings change, is much stronger, truer and deeper than the melancholy you feel by looking to the past.”
The unique family home and its contents are the focus of the siblings’ difficult deliberations. For Assayas, the property is “at the centre of the film … places have souls”. They have to work out a future that may not involve this critical bond in their relations with one another. Frédéric is an economist who rejects much of the new globalisation that has taken Jérémie to a new life in China and Adrienne to success as a designer in New York. He alone is remaining in France. There is added denial to his ruminations. His biggest hurdle is not accepting the loss of his mother and the house but in acknowledging her relationship with her famous artist uncle.

Frédéric’s legacy is his children. In the later stages of the film, the attention shifts to the younger generation through his daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing). She is a very 21st Century teenager, a feisty risk taker who shows the kind of independence we would have expected from her aunt Adrienne in her youth. Sylvie’s key memory involves Hélène sharing the hope that one day her granddaughter will bring her children to the house to play in the gardens. By the way her father chain-smokes through every scene, she is likely to get her inheritance soon.

Another central character is Éloïse, the housekeeper (Isabelle Sadoyan). She loses her home as much as, indeed more than, the remaining family members. However, there are no surprises in this sensitive portrayal. It is a strong cast that seems wasted at times. Juliette Binoche has few challenges in her role. Dominique Reymond gives a very professional performance as Frédéric’s wife.

The film claims, “for every family there is a season”. Summer Hours felt more like autumn to me. It’s beautiful and reflective but extremely slow. The drama is very muted and conflicts are too quickly and too easily resolved.

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