Catalog of memories in a house for sale
Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours" features three adult siblings, several long conversations about whether to sell their family's sprawling country house, and one plastic grocery bag containing the plaster pieces of an Edgar Degas sculpture. The movie is full of quiet and sadness. And I'll confess that I miss the irreverence, absurdity, and manic ambition of Assayas's recent work - 2002's "Demonlover" and 2007's "Boarding Gate" - uncouth as some of it was.
But how nice to see Assayas working again in the warmer, earth tones of his younger self, the man of "Late August, Early September." It's wistful, reflective, and sentimental, as much as Assayas gets, anyway. The film is basically about a house, a giant, sprawling manse whose inheritors - Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, and Juliette Binoche - decide to sell after their mother dies. The movie unfolds like something out of E.M. Forster, but Assayas isn't all that interested in family dynamics. Instead, he's made a chronicle of how the children will handle the sale of the house and its treasures.
The mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), was an academic, devoted principally to the work of a single painter. He was the children's uncle, and her paramour. And over the years, she held on to his sketches, and amassed an enviable collection of art and furniture from designers most people have never heard of, including the kids. But the people who know the value of, say, a Daum vase are thrilled. Early in the film, Hélène explains to her eldest, Frédéric (Berling), what she'd like to have happen to which pieces (the Musée d'Orsay would like a lot of them). Then Assayas presents several scenes in real time, in which conversations among the children, then between them and a lawyer, lead to sequences of an appraiser grazing the house with the children, marveling at their pickings. It's a living Christie's catalog and still very much a movie.
As dramatically uneventful as these passages are, there's a kind of beautiful truth in them, too. The house looks as though someone really lived in it. Order lurks amid the clutter. Glassware, books, flowers, and general stuff abound. Hélène obviously treasured these pieces, but she didn't prize them above the life and memories that surround her. This house was not an art gallery. It was a home. Wandering through it, you get the sense of how a Degas winds up in a bag at the bottom of a closet or why the maid hides one of the Daums (it's not that nice). Her true prize was her family and now that the kids have scattered across the world, there's no reason to hold on to the works. Scatter those, too. Hélène seems to die not of old age - about 20 years separate Berling and Scob, but they look about the same age (those fine bones on her, that pageboy). She dies of the ancient literary malady of disappointment.
She knew the children wouldn't keep the house, although it's Frédéric who still lives in Paris and feels worst about the sale. He's also the one with adolescent children who appear to be slipping through his fingers. Ultimately, "Summer Hours" is a bourgeois lament, but an affecting one, that ponders the bonds and distances among the generations. Binoche's character, a blonde named Adrienne, is a designer, and her craft seems in line with Hélène's philosophy of beauty you can live with, but she's not an artist in the sense that her uncle was. Adrienne makes products and Renier's character, Jérémie, who works for Puma in China, sells them. That it's Frédéric, an economics professor who's the most distraught about putting everything on the market, is a fine irony.
The past meets modernity when Frédéric's daughter, Sylvie (in trouble with boys and drugs), throws a massive party at the manor before it's sold. The kids sing and dance, first to hip-hop then to bubblegum rock (hey, hey, it's Plastiscines). It's a loud, smoky, hormonal affair. But they're using the house the way Hélène would have wanted: to make new memories.