It can be hard to work up sympathy for the trio of siblings managing their mother's estate in Olivier Assayas's warmhearted family drama "Summer Hours."
After all, whatever happens, they're gonna end up loaded, attractive and French.
From their mother they've inherited a gorgeous old country house outside Paris, including the museum-quality furniture and priceless artwork contained within.
As the film opens, we meet matriarch Hlne (Edith Scob) as her family assembles at the family home for her 75th birthday. Hlne has spent much of her life protecting the legacy of her famous uncle, a beloved mid-century painter. When Hlne dies, her three grown children struggle with one another about the fate of the house and its valuable decorative arts collection.
Frdric (Charles Berling, an Assayas regular) wants to hold on to the house and the family traditions it represents. His brother, Jrmie (Jrmie Renier), and their sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), would rather have the money.
In its weaker moments, "Summer Hours" seems more interested in the lives of objects than of people, which befits a movie initially meant to showcase a museum: It began its life as a short film commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay for its 20th anniversary.
Assayas's actors are so fascinating that I wished at times he had given the house less screen time and let his performers explore their characters more freely.
Assayas's last few films have been sleek and baffling multinational thrillers, including "Boarding Gate" and "Demonlover." If this enjoyable film is substantially more satisfying than those predecessors, it's also far less daring.
In fact, the lineage of "Summer Hours," with its exploration of the changing traditions of family life, stretches all the way back to Chekhov -- although Chekhov knew better than to make the cherry orchard the star.
-- Dan Kois (May 22, 2009)
Contains references to pot-smoking but little else objectionable. In French with English subtitles.