Throughout his career, festival favorite Olivier Assayas has alternated between meta-pop, sometimes lurid, neo–New Wave genre flicks and their antithesis — genteel, talk-driven ensemble dramas. With Summer Hours, the 54-year-old director brings it all back home, staging a tactical retreat from the Edge City hookers, junkies, and media sharks of Boarding Gate, Clean, and demonlover to the heart of a bourgeois French family.
Summer Hours opens with a gaggle of first cousins romping around the verdant grounds of the rustic estate, in the midst of life somewhere north of Paris, where their parents grew up. That the kids are on a treasure hunt sets the metaphoric table for much that will follow. The occasion is a 75th birthday celebration for their still formidably chic grandmother, Hélène (Edith Scob). Assayas, who has always excelled at choreographing a fête, uses the first half-hour to introduce Hélène's three grown children, as well as her custodial devotion to the estate, with its casually displayed objets d'art, and to the work of her late uncle, a celebrated painter.
For all the local color, there's a global backbeat. The youngest child (Dardenne favorite Jérémie Renier) runs a Puma factory in China; his sister (Juliette Binoche, blond here) is a New York designer; and, though living in Paris, the eldest son, Frédéric (Assayas alter ego Charles Berling), is an economist. Lunch devoured, everyone rushes off, leaving Hélène to sit in the dark as her sturdy old housekeeper bustles around. She's alone — and she does die, offscreen, perhaps a year later. It's again in the midst of life, as Frédéric does a radio interview.
Too chatty to be ascetic, Summer Hours is nevertheless almost Ozu-like in its evocation of a parent's death and the dissolving bond between the surviving children. It's also an essay on the nature of sentimental and real value — as well as the need to protect French culture in a homogenizing world. The siblings have conflicting positions on how to handle the estate: Frédéric's heart is not only rebroken in these transactions, but also toughened — as the eldest child, and the only local, he has to deal with the practicalities of liquidating the past. Late in the movie, the economist and his wife gaze at Hélène's petite deco desk, now on display at the Musée d'Orsay ("Strange seeing it here — I don't know what to think"), even as Hélène's faithful servant is lovingly deposited in a little retirement tomb somewhere in the south. A beautifully staged coda, paralleling the opening scene, gives the empty estate an appropriately bittersweet send-off.
Summer Hours had its U.S. premiere at last year's New York Film Festival, where its touching meditation on death, absence, and loss was somewhat overshadowed by Arnaud Desplechin's showier family drama, A Christmas Tale. The members of the Assayas clan are certainly less freakish than Desplechin's eccentrics and, thanks to the intensely relational performances that Assayas orchestrates, they make a vivid and sympathetic group — however fortunate, flush, and French. Assayas frames Berling and Renier to heighten their physical resemblance; Binoche is uncannily convincing, both in looks and temperament, as Scob's daughter. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien's 2007 Flight of the Red Balloon, which also starred Binoche, Summer Hours has its origin as a commission celebrating the Musée d'Orsay's 20th anniversary — hence the museum sequences, and the artworks themselves. I don't know whether casting Binoche was part of the deal, but her focused, mercurial performances in both movies suggest that she, too, is a national treasure.
Indeed, Assayas has his own preservationist agenda. Praised as "classically French" by the hard-boiled hipsters of Paris's culture weekly Les Inrockuptibles — not to mention being a perfect example of the middle-budget, heritage-minded film du milieu — Summer Hours exemplifies, even as it ponders, France in the age of unstoppable globalization.