Movie Review: 'Summer Hours' From Writer-Director Olivier Assayas

Juliette Binoche, flanked by Jérémie Renier, left, and Charles Berling in the French drama.
Juliette Binoche, flanked by Jérémie Renier, left, and Charles Berling in the French drama. (By Jeannick Gravelines -- Ifc Via Associated Press)
By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 22, 2009

For those of us whose most pressing estate-planning issue is deciding which of our children will inherit our "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" collector's edition lunchbox, it can be hard to work up sympathy for the trio of siblings managing their mother's estate in Olivier Assayas' warmhearted family drama "Summer Hours." After all, whatever happens, they're gonna end up loaded, attractive and French.

From their chic, intelligent mother they've inherited not just patrician good looks but a gorgeous old country house outside Paris, including the museum-quality furniture and priceless artwork contained within -- a collection so impressive that a broken Degas statue in a shopping bag, shattered by childhood roughhousing, is shrugged off.

As the film opens, we meet matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) as her children and grandchildren assemble at the family home in Île-de-France for her 75th birthday. Hélène has spent much of her life protecting the legacy of her famous artist uncle, overseeing retrospectives and publications devoted to the beloved mid-century painter.

When Hélène dies, her three grown children struggle with each other about the fate of the rambling old house and its valuable decorative arts collection. (Though the artist is fictional, the beautiful art nouveau furniture filling the house is not; it includes rare pieces by Félix Bracquemond, Louis Majorelle and Odilon Redon, many of the works lent to writer-director Assayas by the Musée d'Orsay.)

Frédéric (Charles Berling, an Assayas regular), a Paris economist, wants to hold on to the house and the family traditions it represents. But his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who oversees the production of Puma shoes in Shanghai, would rather have the money, and their sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a hip tableware designer based in New York, agrees that the house and its old-fashioned decor mean little to her anymore.

This plot description implies a lot more in the way of family discord and dinner-table drama than "Summer Hours" actually delivers. There are few arguments in this mostly gentle movie; Frédéric sadly goes along with his siblings' wishes, and great stretches of the story are filled with discussions of how best to avoid estate taxes. Indeed, 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: "Summer Hours" began its life as a short film commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay for its 20th anniversary. (That commemoration was also the origin of last year's excellent "Flight of the Red Balloon," directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou.)

Assayas' eventual point -- that no matter how beautiful that Bracquemond vase is, it's meant to hold flowers, not to be displayed in a museum -- is a worthwhile one, if not perhaps what the Musée d'Orsay had in mind. But Assayas' actors are so fascinating that I wished at times he'd given the house a little less screen time and let his performers explore their characters more freely. When he does give them room to work, they're wonderful, especially Berling, whose Frédéric is so buried in the abstract -- he's an economist whose latest book argues the futility of economics -- that he clings more desperately to the tokens of home than do Adrienne and Jérémie, already knee-deep in salad plates and Pumas. Near the end of the movie, he finds a portable phone in his mother's studio that the children had given her for her birthday, still in its box with a Post-it note attached: "Ask Frédéric to set up the phone." Berling's stricken expression will resonate with anyone who's ever explained the Internet to his mom, whether that happened at a Majorelle mahogany desk or not.

Assayas' last few films have been sleek, baffling, multinational thrillers like "Boarding Gate" and "Demonlover." Though "Summer Hours" lacks firearms, rough sex and Asia Argento, it shares with those movies gorgeous camerawork betraying an infatuation with artifice and surfaces -- several crucial scenes are shot through windows, with reflections obscuring the actors' faces. If this enjoyable film is substantially more satisfying than those predecessors, it's also far less daring, a straightforward extended-family drama in the mode of last year's (more engrossing) art-house highlight "A Christmas Tale." 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.

Summer Hours (102 minutes, in French with English subtitles, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is not rated.

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