Eugene Weekly : Movies : 7.30.09


While Away the Hours
The objects and the affection
by Molly Templeton

SUMMER HOURS: Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Cinematography, Eric Gautier. Editor, Luc Barnier. Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier and Edith Scob. IFC Films, 2009. 103 minutes. Not rated.

Dominique Reymond and Charles Berling in Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas’ classy, languid Summer Hours is one of those impeccably made French dramas in which handsome people sit around in their tastefully appointed, beautifully filmed homes discussing their lives and their futures, small glasses of doubtlessly top-shelf alcohol in hand. Yet even if you feel, as I did at the movie’s start, that you have had your fill of impeccable French dramas, Summer Hours might get under your skin, especially in the little moments: a daughter correcting her mother, who’s got very specific ideas about what the daughter likes; a father discussing his willful daughter with his calmer son; a pencil sketch, held up to the light. 

The sketch is part of the estate left to three siblings — Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) — after the death of their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), who kept the house nearly as it was when her beloved uncle, a painter, died. The siblings have a choice to make about the estate and the valuable pieces of art within: Should they keep the house and its treasures, sustaining it for their own kids, or should it all be sold to benefit the different lives of the adult children? Sentimentality or practicality? Which is which? Is art better off in a home or in a museum? And why are the most valuable vases always the ugliest ones?

Assayas’ film is compact and close, calm and collected. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed; when Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), who’s been the housekeeper for ages, picks a vase as a souvenir, she chooses it because she can keep putting flowers in it, as she did for Hélène. “What would I do with something valuable?” she asks — some time after it’s been established for the viewer that said ugly vase, which was kept in the bottom of a cupboard, is actually quite valuable. It’s a brief line that points to the film’s themes — What do objects mean to us, to someone else; how can they reflect what we care about and how we see the world? — but it feels ungainly and obvious.

Summer Hours begins and ends with groups of children running about Hélène’s home. In the beginning, a young, innocent group plays a game, taking the lush grounds for granted. At the end, the older kids have asked to throw a party, and the grounds are thick with teenagers, who group and mill about, drinking and smoking and enjoying their freedom. But Frédéric’s daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) wanders through the trees and grass in search of her boyfriend, walking paths we’ve seen in a different light. Sylvie finds herself in a place she recognizes, caught up in its history, in how it was shown in a painting once. The way the reminiscence catches her off guard is beautiful. Though she was left out of the decision-making, she too has her stories there, her moments, her

Summer Hours opens Friday, July 31, at the Bijou.