Thursday, April 29, 2010

Betraying the past, distracted by the present: Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours

When I first started watching Olivier Assayas' 2008 Summer Hours (L'heure d'ete) on Criterion DVD, I figured it was another French family drama annoyingly intent upon rubbing southern France's cultural superiority in my face, and for awhile, as children frolicked and hunted for treasure in the countryside, a matronly servant Eloise baked some exquisite chicken dish, and the family toasted each other with champagne, the film didn't disappoint. But then, something strange happened. Summer Hours is actually all about inattention, modern-day distraction, and the loss of that family heritage of art, leisure, and alfresco dinners with relatives. Curiously, the less the three characters pay attention to the drastic changes in their inheritance, the more the viewer notices what's going on, and for all of the film's beauty and balance, the implications are ominous.

The film concerns three siblings in their forties: Frederic (Charles Burling), the eldest, a professor of economics, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), the rebel designer living in the United States, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), who works as an engineer for Puma shoes in China. Of the three, only Frederic lives in France, and their mother Helene (Edith Scob) tries to use the occasion of her 75th birthday party to impress upon Frederic the need to think of what to do with the family estate and the various valuable works of art scattered around it. But Frederic finds the discussion morbid and asks her to change the subject. He assures her that the estate will stay in the family and the collection will remain intact. For Helene's birthday present, the family pitches in to buy her some telephones that she finds frustratingly difficult to use. In a sense, the three principals seek to replace technology for art and face-to-face interaction, and it makes sense that Helene never learns how to use the devices.

Soon enough, the family leaves in a rush, the beginning of many scenes where characters hurriedly take off in botched goodbyes. Helene pauses and walks up the steps back to her home into the darkness of some trees. She next appears in dark blue lighting, sitting resigned and exhausted. Eloise asks her if she would like any dinner, and Helene says no. Eloise points out that the grandchildren forgot the cherries (cherry imagery, a possible reference to Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, bookends the film), and Helene replies: "Their parents were distracted, thinking about their trip back. A lot of things will be leaving with me--memories, stories, stories that interest no one anymore. There's the residue--the objects. I don't want it to weigh on them," and the scene fades out.

Then, immediately, Assayas cuts to Frederic reacting to Helene's death about six months later. He consults with the local town official about her grave site, and then, driving away, pulls over to cry by himself in the car. We then see Adrienne nearly cry (I enjoyed the way the ensemble emphasis kept Binoche from playing a star. In her brightly colored mod fleece jackets, she's a scattered rebel ditz). Soon enough, the three siblings determine, against Frederic's wishes, to sell the house, and many of the works of art get donated to the Musee d'Orsee to help save on the high estate tax. As far as Helene's inheritance is concerned, everything falls away like a slow motion avalanche, leaving a desk on display in a museum, and one of the vases (which was used to hold flowers back in the house) now sealed behind glass with a bunch of parallel pieces of glassware.

Someone might wonder--what's the big deal about some works of art? Assayas is careful to never show much bias toward the values of one generation or another, but the works of art directly reflect aspects of people's lives--the dinner table outside (in a drawing) or the view from a window. Art conveys a contemplative attentiveness to one's surroundings, the beauty of nature, whereas the threesome appear too busy, too quick to answer a call on their cell phone to notice things like that. When Frederic and his wife visit the Musee d'Orsee and behold the desk in a new context of alienated glory, they are bemused by the museum aesthetics, but now their inheritance have become part of a show that crowds hurry past en route to other amusements.

Though the Musee can restore a Degas plaster sculpture that Frederic broke as a child, the items have lost their usefulness to the family. The theme is strikingly like the one in Alice Walker's 1973 short story "Everyday Use," where a family of sharecroppers in Georgia consider their family inheritance in the form of quilts, benches, and a butter churn. But while Walker allows the family to have one young representative, Maggie, embody her heritage by knowing how to quilt on her own, Assayas doesn't include anyone like that in the film. Instead, he emphasizes how the younger teenage generation, which includes Frederic's daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), have little to no interest in their grandmother's way of life. As her brother points out when their dad points to some Corot paintings, "It's from another era." The kids get to throw a party on the estate right before it's sold, but they're more interested in soccer, marijuana, rap music, and the party scene than in any old building they happen to be inhabiting.

To be fair, Sylvie does mourn for her grandmother for a moment as she picks some cherries with her delinquent boyfriend, but they blithely run off into the woods soon after. I don't think anyone in the movie fully knows what they had originally, nor are they fully aware of what they've relinquished, but the viewer can see the systematic loss of a way of life as it falls prey to modern gadgets, globalization, standardized revolt, and Americanized speed, and that's what makes the film so powerful.


Jake said...

I'm totally with you right up to the end, at which point we completely diverge. You see the bit at the end with Syvie as, and forgive me for putting words in your mouth, sort of lip service to the younger kids before things shift right back into a lament. I disagree; I found this coda to elevate Summer Hours above what might otherwise have been an exemplary but conservative (even cranky) stab at lost culture. I took the ending as Assayas gently -- as he did everything else in the film -- giving credit to youth, acknowledging that, just because they do not treat tradition in the same way does not mean that they do not care for the past or their heritage. They merely exhibit in different ways, just as every generation does. Her accepting her grief and then heading off to frolic is not a display of her casting off meditation but of the internalization of sorrow that allows her to continue living her life in the present, which is what life is for. It's for having fun and making mistakes and collecting your own keepsakes and reminders and objects of personal significance. Sylvie shows how the young can remember their pasts while not being shackled to it, as Frederic is.

Either way, we both agree it's a great film, and I've been positively itching to gather the cash to pick it up. It's destined to become a close personal favorite, likely more so as I grow older.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jake. You make an excellent point, but I still wonder how much Assayas means for the viewer to generalize about the younger generation and its relationship to the past based on Sylvie's scene in the precinct and on the party scene. Assayas conveys the forty somethings well in part because they are closer to his own age, but what to make of Sylvie's shoplifting? Why does he use uncharacteristically long shots in the party scene? Why does he emphasize theft again when Sylvie notes that one of the guys stole wood from the neighbors for the fire? Doesn't the party scene resemble the one in Donnie Darko and innumerable other movies where things get out of hand, and they will end up trashing the place? In comparison to the alfresco gourmet meals earlier, now the kids have junk munchies to eat, listen to loud rap music, and rush around on the motorcycles. Isn't Assayas suggesting some further progression or regression in terms of the three generations?

realvirtuality said...

Thanks for mentioning the film. I saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival two years ago and it struck me because of its naturalism that was actually naturalistic and not in-your-face over-authentic. I watched it and had the feeling that this was a tale of actual people, with the camera circling around them so agile all the time. Thanks for reminding me of how much I liked the film at the time.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, realvirtuality,

I was struck by the naturalism too. I also liked the way the incidental comments and details of the film gained in significance as the movie developed. Upon a second viewing, one see how just about everything has ironic reversals or consequences elsewhere. Also, I believe Assayas allows the actors some improvisation. The film's naturalism hides its artfulness.

Bot's Been Drinking Again said...

I just watched this film last night and was enthralled throughout. I enjoyed your post about it; however, I agree with the other commenters: I do not see the film as snubbing youth in any way - in fact, the opposite.

You fail to mention one salient plot point of the film: Helene's (probable) relationship with her uncle, the great artist. It happened when she was young! And she spends her scenes in the film reliving her youth - and her love for her uncle - to the point of annoyance to the other characters.

If anything, I see the film as granting permission for younger generations to shed the husk of family inheritance, which can be as imprisoning (as it seemed to be for Helene) as it is valuable.

What makes Assayas' film so successful, of course, is his refusal to put his thumb on the scale. It's complicated, and he doesn't try to deny the complexity. Are we defined by our pasts? Are the heirlooms we hold onto the right ones? Who decides?

I am already looking forward to watching this film again (and again) - its complexities and subtleties will reward many viewings.