Touching and Nostalgic
Anyone who has lost a parent will find a lot of deja vu in the French family drama Summer Hours, written and directed by Olivier Assayas. As matriarch Hélène ages, she loves it when her children and grandchildren come to their summer home where the youngsters run wild, the wine flows freely, and conservations range from current job opportunities to memories of the past.
This summer Hélène (Edith Scob) is excited because her children have again returned to their home near Paris, this time to celebrate her 75th birthday. Now living their collective lives around the world, it was not easy for them. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer based in New York. Her baby brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), works for Puma shoes and has recently been transferred to China. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an economist and university professor in Paris.
While the kids seem more intent on enjoying a celebration and family reunion, Hélène has another agenda for this get-together. She wants to talk about her death and what will happen to the family heirlooms which include several she inherited from her uncle’s well-known and very valuable 19th century art collection.
Drawing Frédéric into the study, Hélène informs him what she plans to give to the museums, what he’s in charge of, and what he should keep for himself. Frédéric’s fidgeting clearly shows he’s not ready for this conversation, but he obliges his mother by listening and nodding his head. He is most concerned about two paintings by Camille Corot, which he feels should always remain in the family. While the adults discuss disbursements, the grandchildren roam the estate’s creek beds and hillsides just as their parents once did.
As if ready for one of those new revolving image frames, beautiful photography by Eric Gautier captures the joy of life’s fleeting moments. In Into the Wild Gautier made Chris McCandless’ life journey appear both vibrant and harrowing at the same time. He repeats that same magic in Summer Hours. For example, while among her children, Hélène’s eyes reflect admiration and pride of a job well done -- yet when alone, her face becomes the bleak, emotionless mask of time run out.
The children finally depart, leaving Hélène to commiserate with her beloved Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), who cooks and tidies up for her and probably knows her employer better than Hélène’s own children. Within a year Hélène dies and the children make their mournful journey home.
The siblings now face serious dilemmas. Adrienne and Jérémie don’t see their families returning to Paris on a regular basis and want to sell the house. For Frédéric; it is like an heirloom, and he wishes to keep it for the family to reunite.
“My characters have no choice but to become adults,” Assayas said. “The previous generation has gone. They are not shielded from time or maturity anymore. In fact they’re right in the firing line. They are no longer happy to just be in the present or to inventory the past. They ask themselves a new question: what they will leave behind.”
In the midst of their decisions, each character uncovers family secrets that either derail or accelerate their wishes. For those who have not yet experienced these situations in their own life, it’s most likely a time that will come in the future, and the film serves as a food-for-thought precursor to those occasions.
While I found the ending terribly cliché and guilty of breaking the sentimental mood of the film, the great cast makes Summer Hours realistic yet touching. Summer Hours is in French with English subtitles.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted on www.reviewexpress.com.