Sunday, December 20, 2009

Film Review: Summer Hours

Summer Hours (Directed by Olivier Assayas, 2009): I wanted to sit on this one for a couple days before writing about it. I have a tendency to overrate/overhype just about anything I have just seen and enjoyed. Then, a few days later after reflecting on it, I realize that my feelings have cooled somewhat (or a lot) and I blush at my earlier rave reviews. And sometimes I walk away from something feeling somewhat let down or bewildered and the film sits in my subconscious and percolates, and I find myself revisiting images over and over like a slideshow in my head and realize that I did, in fact, love the film. And sometimes, it's a film like Summer Hours, where my first instinct is that I loved it, and I wait a few days and realize...that I loved it just the same.

Summer Hours begins at the birthday of Helene (Edith Scob), the family matriarch, attended by her three children and assorted grandchildren. Helene takes Frederic (Charles Berling), the oldest, aside and begins run down an itemized list of her posessions, many of them priceless works of art, and who should get what, and what should be sold, and about selling the house. Frederic is aghast, not only does he not want to discuss his mother’s guest, but he is perplexed at the idea of selling the house. The children will meet there with their families for summer vacations, he reasons. Later, after Helene has indeed died, he repeats this statement as an unanimous fact, despite the fact he’s never talked it over with either of his siblings. The looks on the siblings, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), tell it all. Rather than be a silent majority, they both say their piece. Jeremie, the youngest, is set to begin a five-year contract in China. He won’t be able to take advantage of the house for those five years, and likely beyond. Adrienne is getting married for the second time, she says she won’t get back to France more than maybe once a year. They both defer to Frederic, the oldest, but there’s no choice to make here. That’s part of being the oldest: being left to make the decisions, when the decisons have already been made for you, but knowing that if it goes wrong it will always be you who made the final choice. Frederic makes a last pitch to keep some of the artwork, in particular a pair of priceless paintings. But, Jeremie needs money to purchase a home in Peking, and Adrienne rationalizes: “You can’t split two pictures three ways.”

The rest of the story is told in vignettes. Chief amongst those is my favourite scene, a heart-wrenching scenario where assessors pore over every artifact in the house, extolling their values while the the children sit passively by and watch family heirlooms and memories reduced to their finite financial value. Eloise, Helene’s longtime housekeeper stops by, and Frederic, in an act of simultaneous compassion for the woman and defiance against a process he doesn’t believe in, quietly gives her a vase that he knows to have tremendous value, because she, like Frederic, believes the vase has no real value if it’s not full of flowers in a sun-lit room. After exiting the house, she confesses to her relative giving her a ride that she could never take anything of value, that she wouldn’t feel right, not knowing that she has a priceless artifact in her possession.

Berling is stellar, playing a man who believes in nostalgia and sentimentality and wants to keep the house in the family so his children, and their eventual children can meet there and love it the way he did. He is directly at odds with his siblings, who are more materialistic, but also more realistic. Right until the end, Frederic harbours the delusion that he could buy out the other two siblings and keep the house, somehow.

It ends with a joyous house party, okayed by Frederic, seeing as the house will soon be taken over by a new owner, thrown by his teenage daughter. Throughout the film, Helene's children often use the feelings of their own children as reasons for justifying their point of view. Frederic talks about how much his children love the house, while Jeremie admits his children would rather vacation in Bali, then return to a house they have no strong affinity for. And when we first see Frederic's daughter's party: all loud music, booze and guys tooling around on motor-scooters and dirt bikes, we think she has the same inkling as her cousins: that it's just a house she used to visit with no real emotional attachment.

But, then we see her standing in a field of the house's seemingly limitless environs, with her boyfriend, she is brought to tears by the fact that her grandmother is gone, and, soon, the house will be, too. It’s a wonderful moment reinforcing the theme of the film: that people go, that things go, and, once they’re gone you can never get them back, so she goes back to her party. It’s a perfect ending to one of 2009’s best.

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