Sunday, June 06, 2010

Movie Review: Summer Hours

A few years ago I saw the movie Clean starring Maggie Cheung as a ex-con junkie musician who somehow manages to pull her life back together after losing her partner, custody of her child and any sense of identity that may have come from her former life. It gave me a new perspective on film, one that expressed the idea of the global citizen, living a life where borders no longer rule the lives of people who harbor the dream of communicating with other human beings. It was a truly international film, traversing across various cultures and continents as if their inherent differences no longer existed, not in a Jason Bourne I am the king of the universe kind of way but rather in a more mundane fact of modern day life type of existence. It really captured the soul of the 21st century and it was also my introduction to the world of Olivier Assayas.

Assayas was born of the cinema and like so many others who grew up immersed in the world film, it became a natural medium for him to explore. Obviously influenced by many of the great French artists of the 60's and 70's, La Nouvelle Vague; Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol. Rohmer; Assayas captures a sensibility in life that actually considers the true nature of our human emotions. He came to prominence as a filmmaker after writing for Cahier du Cinema for a few years during the early 80's and is highly regarded in Europe, though his films have always had trouble finding a large audience here in the States. This is unfortunate because his movies are rich and beautiful and realistic and complex, worthy of recognition, but there's no shortcuts here, only heartfelt interactions that feel like something that you just experienced the last time you were with friends or family.

The Criterion Collection has made available a special edition DVD of Assayas 2008 film “Summer Hours” and it's a perfect opportunity for him to connect with some new viewers. Filled with interviews with Assayas and actors Charles Berling and Juliette Binoche, as well as a documentary that explores the film's approach to art in the cinema, it's a movie that should be on the queue of anyone who looks for thoughtful and emotionally resonate filmmaking when they press the play button on their remote.

Summer Hours follows three well-to-do siblings as they deal with the passing of their mother. The film opens with her 75th birthday party out at the family estate where they've all come together for the first time in awhile. We get an intimate glimpse into the heart of the family, spanning three generations, through this very ordinary gathering in the home of their youth. Assayas uses a deft and honest tone to immerse us into their world and wonderful dialogue to help us understand how they all got there, without actually making it feel like it's being narrated to us. This type of expression is where Assayas excels in filmmaking. Throughout the rest of the film we share wine and tears, laughter and conversation with the family as they address the unpleasant task of handling their mother's estate after she's died. Often a scene tends to linger on moments where it seems so hard to let go; two brothers refusing to say goodbye as they stand in the rain, a wife attempting to comfort her husband in a dark room, the grief of loss stranded on the side of the road under the shadows of overhanging branches. Each frame holding onto the delicate nature of their lives with the warmth and beauty of a precious painting, masterpieces for the halls of museums.

An important aspect of the film resides within the evaluation of worth regarding the things that we collect in our lives and eventually leave behind for those who remain. The matriarch has spent a lifetime surrounding herself with beautiful and valuable art pieces. From famous paintings to gorgeous furniture, from impressionist sculptures to a post-modern vase, these objects of inheritance can end up becoming burdens in the end. How many times have we stopped in on an estate sale to marvel at the collection of stuff people have left for others to deal with? It's shocking to see and hardly anything will ever be cherished with the same feelings as of the original owner. In the case of this esteemed French family, we are taken to a much more elevated extreme of this idea and most of the conflict between the siblings comes down to how they can accommodate their inheritance equitably and with respect to their mother's legacy. Played by Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier respectively, they bring poise and a nuanced air to their roles that we ultimately recognize as love for one another. They are polite, honest and ambitious, which reflects on the way that they were raised, another gift passed on by their mother. Though many of her collected works do end up in a museum, looking spare and beautiful, there's a longing that yearns for the utilitarian necessity of the past when these objects were still useful; a vase that should be filled with flowers or a desk in need of clutter.

What do we cherish after all is said and done, after a life has been fulfilled? Assayas reveals what is at the heart of the matter by the way the narrative moves through the film. We pass from the perspective of the Grandmother at the beginning of the movie, then become ensconced in the lives of her children as they come to terms with her death and finally we end with the grandchildren and a big bash they hold for their friends shortly before the ancestral home is to be sold. Assayas hands off the responsibility of life through each generation as if it's a baton, these memories and feelings that cling to us after all the years. This third generation cares for the objects of the past least of all but that doesn't mean that they are callous to what is passing.

When Sylvie, the oldest grandchild, pauses in a meadow with her boyfriend, she recalls how her Grandmother often brought her there when she was younger. She's struck by the power of the place and it overwhelms her heart so much that quiet tears spring out of her. She truly understands what has become lost here. It's a moment that is so pure and silent that it only belongs to her, not even her boyfriend knows how to penetrate her delicate space. The moment passes as all moments do and Sylvie quickly tries to escape any intrusion to her thoughts, but every time you break away from that intimate caress with the past and with each passing day, those memories become less clear, like an old unattended country home that has grown thick with vines and moss and weeds.

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