Live Long and Prosper: Star Trek and More
Olivier Assayas's new meditation on French domestic life, the wisely ironic Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été), begins with children's games and ends with adolescent partying and pairing off--that is, the real business of life. All the rest focuses on the concerns of a middle-aged man, who is determined to hold onto his responsibilities--toward his mother, his siblings, his family property--while slowly and unwillingly being made as carefree as a kid.
The real kids, who open the film on a fine bright day, are a brood of cousins, seen romping through the woods and down the hilly paths of their grandmother's country house. They're on a treasure hunt; and from the way Assayas's always-mobile camera presses forward when they find a clue, as if it were looking with them, you may guess there is much more to be dug out of this place. Sure enough, the discoveries begin as soon as the children's parents settle down to lunch around the long table on the patio, to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of a very elegant mother (Edith Scob) who coolly dismisses everything they do.
None of them pleases, or can even interest, her--not Frédéric (Charles Berling), the pensive but ever-hurried economics professor who lives in Paris, not Adrienne (a bright blonde Juliette Binoche), a designer who resides in the United States and has adopted its slouching ways, and not Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a corporate functionary who is making his home and raising his family where the opportunities are greatest, in China. Their Champagne, their presents (admittedly dull and practical), their efforts to draw out a festive mood all fall flat with the mother, who comes to life only when presented with a book. It's the catalogue of a new retrospective of the paintings of her late uncle, a great and celebrated artist, who had left her this house and all the wonderful objects in it.
What is to be done with this property, after her death? The mother raises the question herself, without prelude, in a scene that takes her and Frédéric away from the outdoors and the group, into mutual isolation in a clutter of rooms where she insists on making an inventory. With seeming indifference toward her son, his childhood memories and even the claims of an artist's legacy, she commands that everything be sold--the Corot paintings, the Art Nouveau furniture, even her uncle's sketchbook--and the house shut down. Frédéric, increasingly agitated, won't hear of it, though it's not clear in this tense and protracted scene what exactly he wants to hold onto: the hope that his mother might relent before her death and love him, or the fantasy that his children will eventually love this house enough to make it live again.
These are the first of the discoveries in Summer Hours. The rest have to do with the different meanings of the house and its artworks to the mother, the siblings, the children, the old housekeeper and even the French state (as represented by the curators of the Musée d'Orsay). Despite the predominance of Frédéric's viewpoint, the perspectives are multiple and the scenes containing them discontinuous, often beginning abruptly (with the intrusion of a speeding car, for example) and ending with a fade to black; and yet the texture of Summer Hours somehow feels smooth and whole. Maybe it's because Assayas, unlike Frédéric, always seems to have enough time: to pause and look down on a village, to watch reconciled brothers say goodbye in a gentle rain, to follow the transfer of an expensive objet d'art into the hands of someone who just wants to put flowers in it.
How do we value our lives? Frédéric, as an economist, has some idea. Summer Hours respects him for that; but it respects him more for the way he lives, after he has to let his idea go.