Olivier Assayas, 2008
Olivier Assayas’s SUMMER HOURS (L'heure d'été) starts with a celebration. Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) converge on the art-filled family home with their partners and children to celebrate the 75th birthday of their mother, Helene (Edith Scob). Once the home of Helene’s uncle (a respected artist long departed, for whom she was a muse – and possibly more besides), the house is one of many possessions that are virtual characters in this intriguing meditation on values and dissolution (aesthetic, moral, economic, and ultimately life itself). Just as summer turns to autumn, Summer Hours gradually reveals the world as a place that Helene’s uncle couldn’t have imagined. The opening shot of children running carefree around the family home is returned to at the end to poignant effect.
Completed before the financial downturn, the film nevertheless has much to say about the economic rationalism (in other words, the callous greed) that led to the current crisis. Assayas has always been critical of the ‘trickle-up’ effect of globalism, and uses the opportunity of contributing to the recent series of films commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay to take a swing at (among other things) the implicit complicity of the custodians of public art. Assayas suggests that the dissolution of family, culture, heritage, and nationhood – a meaningful sense of place and connection for future generations – is being (or perhaps already has been) sold down the river. And yet, Summer Hours is by no means dour or depressing. For the most part it’s warm and engaging, but as a depiction of the cynical potential of power and privelege it’s a sobering and timely film. Like L’eau froide, Irma Vep and Late August Early September, Summer Hours is one of Assayas’s most restrained, thoughtful, and (in my view) most substantial films.
ADDENDUM: In my original capsule (above), I mentioned how Assayas used the opportunity of contributing to a series of commissions to take a swing at the custodians of public art – i.e., the museum that commissioned his film! I’ve since learned that the Musée d'Orsay have disowned his film. Zut alors! I’m going to assume therefore that Assayas must have hit a nail squarely on it’s ‘precious-elevated-opinion-of-itself’ head. Assayas can be patchy as a filmmaker, but I admit that all depends on one’s taste. I simply can’t understand why Demonlover is so highly rated, or that fewer people than I would like are going to recognise how far-reaching the perceptions in Summer Hours are. Claire Denis’s near-transcendental masterwork 35 Shots of Rum aside, this was one of the better French films in this year’s festival, and certainly one of Assayas’s most assured.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader