"Summer Hours is sublime"

Summer Hours

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            “Summer Hours” is sublime. The themes are universal; the details are enticingly and authentically French. Director Olivier Assayas captures the slightly uncomfortable rhythm that families fall into when they step out of their own lives into a family reunion. In this case, three adult children and a passel of grandchildren have gathered for the 75th birthday of the matriarch at the summer house where they all grew up.

            Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob) has a lot on her mind. She is tired and finished with life and needs to explain to her oldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) what she wants done with her eclectic and valuable art collection after she dies. And the house. Hélène knows better than Frédéric that sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who live respectively in New York and China with good jobs in the global economy, have carved lives that exclude their childhood summer home. Even if they made it back once a year, the grandchildren would never have the ties that come only from growing up in the culture of one place.

            Only Frédéric lives in Paris and it is sad indeed to watch his dream of family tradition fall away as his siblings tell him – with tact and kindness – that they can no longer get back to France. The house will be sold. While Hélène is still alive, the film deals with the lasting feeling a childhood house offers to those who love it. She is an accomplished professional who has collected art she loves and she trusts Frédéric to do right by it. Charles Berling conveys Frédéric’s contained sadness beautifully.

            A great strength here is that the movie is not weakened by argument among the children. They will give the important things to the Musée d’Orsay. Each will take one or two things they love. The rest will be sold at auction. Much attention is paid to the cherished notebooks of Hélène’s uncle, artist Paul Berthier.

            In an especially poignant scene, Hélène reminds Frédéric, “Memories, secrets, stories – will be leaving with me. The rest is residue.” She knows an object is an amalgam of the stories of the artist who made it and the people who loved it. Without that, objects are as lifeless as the people who loved them.

            This is a story of a family trying to do right by their mother, by the art, and by the house they had loved. Hélène understood an elusive lesson: today’s global culture is also a nomadic one. She was at peace with the truth that houses and objects once loved greatly can now claim only one generation.

            Big questions are laced here into a simple story that becomes utterly compelling in the hands of Olivier Assayas and a handful of first rank actors. To see the essence, follow Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s maid. Affection, loyalty, tradition, simplicity, honesty. The only thing impossible in the new world is keeping the old.


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