One can generalize that American movies are usually about people with one problem, and French movies are usually about people with a nexus of problems. In Olivier Assayas' absorbing and smart new film Summer Hours, the dissolution of an extended family illuminates an abstract idea: artistic patrimony, and how it gets scattered to the winds.
Previously, it was the French cinematic patrimony that got scattered, in Assayas' best-known film here, Irma Vep. Irma Vep concerned a crass and useless modern remake of a pioneering work of French cinema; there was also a sense of mitigation: the grace of Maggie Cheung bringing life even to a film-within-a-film that was better off dead.
At her 75th birthday party, Hélène (Edith Scob) prepares to divide up her worldly goods among her children. These children live all over the globe and don't have the wherewithal to keep Hélène's luscious but crumbling home going. The place is stuffed with valuable art pieces, too, which would be doled out someday. The grandchildren are uninterested; the fogs of Corot look depressing in their polychrome world.
Hélène was the longtime companion (and perhaps more) to her uncle Paul, a noted post-impressionist. Among the treasures of the house are the painter's own last works and the gifts from friends and contemporaries, such as a panels by Odile Redon himself.
This rich but slightly awkward legacy is puzzled out after Hélène drops dead, right after she travels to San Francisco for a retrospective of Paul's work. The dividing up begins shortly afterward, with the Musée d'Orsay hovering to pick the best material. This museum, which commissioned Summer Hours as a celebration of its 20th anniversary, opens itself up to the camera from galleries to sub-basements. The splitting up of these goods troubles Hélène's siblings: Frédéric (Charles Berling), an inarticulate economics professor, would love to keep the collection together. That's not practical; brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who lives in China, working for an athletic shoe firm, wouldn't be able to visit.
It takes a director with a good memory to recall the young girl Scob was once upon a time, as in Franju's Eyes Without a Face, and to correctly figure that Juliette Binoche could play her daughter. Binoche is bleached a tawny blonde here. Her Adrienne is a perpetual expatriate; her mother's tough-minded daughter, she appreciates these family treasures in the abstract but doesn't want them with her, cramping her style.
Summer Hours mulls over the cultural and financial primacy that has migrated out from France into China and the United States—and where will it go next? Yet it makes no recriminations. Assayas is gentle about the harsh edge of time scraping away things that are traditionally French, leaving behind the world-pop (mono)culture of superheroes and sneakers. ("Which one are you, Batman or Superman?" asks one of Hélène's grandchildren to another.)
Compare this French elegy to Gran Torino, where the American cultural legacy—canned beer, the proverbial can of whoopass, and tough Detroit cars—get passed on only to those who can earn them. Summer Hours has touches of Chekhov in it, in the idea of a legacy being only appreciated when it's gone; the old servant of the house Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) is uneducated, but she has perhaps the best sense of what is worth keeping.
Rather than mourning over the end of an era, Assayas looks into the liveliness of what's next. At a final house party, he and cinematographer Eric Gautier (Into the Wild) ride over the swells of energy like surfers paddling for a wave. They come to rest on a trio of charming young modern girls shaking it to Les Plastiscines' terrific punk tune "Loser." In this film about art, it's as if these young dancers were the Three Graces come to life.
'Summer Hours' opens on Friday, June 5, at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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