The French film "Summer Hours" was initiated under the unlikely auspices of Paris's Musée d'Orsay on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. As benefactors go, I much prefer to see a movie commissioned by a famous French museum rather than by some fat cat vulgarian.
Given the film that writer-director Olivier Assayas has made from this commission, the film-museum connection makes sense. "Summer Hours" is, among other things, about the hold that artworks have on us because of their place in our lives and our memories.
The film begins at the rural summer family retreat of Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob), who is celebrating her 75th birthday with her two sons, Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the son's wives (Dominique Reymond and Valérie Bonneton) and children, and her daughter Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche). A golden-toned lushness pervades the scene, but the mood shifts when Hélène, whose home is filled with valuable art, takes Frédéric aside to confide in him. Because he alone among the siblings is rooted in France – Adrienne is a designer in New York, Jérémie is forever flying to China on business – she unofficially appoints him the ultimate caretaker of these treasures (including paintings by Corot). She wants the pieces left to a museum and not sold off piecemeal.
This moment between Hélène and Frédéric is a symbolic leave-taking, and when, soon after, she passes on, he is faced with a different reality from the one either had envisioned. Adrienne, edgy, easily distracted, cares little for preserving the art in a museum setting. Jérémie, meanwhile, announces that he is relocating to China and needs money from the sale of the art – and the home, which Frédéric was hoping to keep in the family – to finance his move. A well-known economist, Frédéric understands as well as anyone the vagaries of money, and he is not unsympathetic to his brother's needs. But Hélène was right to entrust him with her wishes, even though, ultimately, he is voted down by Jérémie and Adrienne. Hélène saw in him what we do: A deep-down connection to the family legacy. For Frédéric, the paintings, the furniture, the house are all talismans of his personal history.
Assayas conveys with great understatement an entire constellation of emotions in "Summer Hours." I wouldn't have minded a little bit of overstatement. He strains to avoid the histrionics that would naturally arise from such material. There are some similarities here to the work of Eric Rohmer, but Rohmer's films are intellectualized and pivot on moral dilemmas. Assayas is more free-form in his ruminations. "Summer Hours" is intermittently quite moving, especially in those scenes where Frédéric attempts to be upstanding while muffling his melancholia. But the comparisons this film has been getting to Chekhov are misplaced. Chekhov's plays may be about the mundane sorrows of life but his characters are incandescent with passion. By dampening the highs and lows in "Summer Hours," Assayas is trying for a sublime realism, but often what we get instead are depth charges superficially sounded.
Still, this is a movie that, for all its once-over-lightliness, stays with one. Given what it's about, and the intelligence of its makers, how could it not? Without making a big deal about it, it also gets at a subject that is especially pertinent right now: the globalization of our lives. Assayas has said in interviews that "globalization is as much a human as an economic phenomenon," and this is borne out in "Summer Hours," where the siblings' far-flung lives inevitably take a toll on their emotional connections. Hélène's grandchildren feel it, too; they are rueful, fleetingly, about the sale of their childhood summer home but ultimately disconnected from its loss. The summer hours they spent there are memories that will soon burn off. Grade: B+