In 'Summer Hours,' it's all about the details

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 12:00 AM

There are some subjects in life that we do our absolute best to avoid discussing. Death probably ranks No. 1 on the list. And the related issue of estate planning? Surely that also falls somewhere in the top five.

Yet filmmaker Olivier Assayas unflinchingly and compellingly confronts both in "Summer Hours," a gracefully observed, gorgeously shot French film, out today in a DVD and Blu-ray release (both $39.95) from the Criterion Collection, about a trio of siblings forced to reconcile their mother's affairs after her sudden death.

Honored by several critics' organizations as the best foreign language film of 2009, "Summer Hours" depicts all the practical decisions -- whether to sell the treasured family home, determining which paintings are valuable enough to donate to a museum -- that rear up after a relative's demise, matters that matriarch Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob) refers to early in the film as "the residue, the objects" a person leaves behind. If that sounds dry, depressing or some combination of the two, it isn't. Assayas handles the material with directness, but also with gentleness, opening the movie by bringing us right into that sun-dappled, artistically rich home to celebrate Hélène's 75th and final birthday. From the very beginning, like any good host, he makes the viewer feel like a member of this fractured family, allowing us to feel just as invested as Hélène's surviving sons (Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier) and daughter (a willful and empathetic Juliette Binoche) when it comes time to face the difficult task of divvying up the remains of her days.

All the details -- right down to Hélène's prized mahogany desk crafted by artist and designer Louis Majorelle -- seem strikingly real, and for good reason. As the director explains during "Inventory," a 50-minute documentary included among the extras on the DVD, Assayas borrowed and replicated artworks from Paris's Musée d'Orsay, giving them significant cameo appearances in his story. "Inventory" provides even more information about that process and the pieces and paintings we see onscreen; it's a feature that anyone with an interest in fine art will find fascinating. Others, however, may get a little drowsy after the first 15 minutes or so.

In an interview, also included on the DVD and filmed by the Criterion Collection earlier this year, Assayas talks in greater, occasionally noteworthy depth about the things that inspired him to make the movie -- the death of his mother, as well as an ultimately scrapped film project that was supposed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay. Portions of this same territory are covered in the third special feature found on the DVD, a half-hour making-of documentary that, like the movie that inspired it, doesn't shy away from showing us reality. The problem is that sometimes reality can be a little dull, which is why some viewers may be less than enthralled by watching behind-the-scenes footage of camera crews waiting for noisy jets to finish flying overhead so they can begin shooting a scene.

Even if the supplemental material on "Summer Hours" isn't always as absorbing as the film, it succeeds in showing us the level of effort involved in creating a cinematic world that seems so casually authentic, we might fail to notice how much care went into molding it. Both this DVD and Assayas's film serve as reminders that in life, it's the little things -- the residue, the objects -- that often carry the most meaning.

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