Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

Summer Hours film poster

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, it’s a story of siblings who have grown up and are leading very different lives. Until now, they have been returning to their mother’s home in the rural outskirts of Paris twice a year. But their jobs are making some of them spend more time in New York and China. The film starts with noise and bustle as they gather along with their children to prepare for their mother’s birthday party.

I should point out that I attended an animation training workshop on the morning of the day I saw this film, so film grammar and shot types were front of my mind as I watched from the back left of the Curzon Soho’s screen 1.

Their mother’s house is a shrine to her beloved uncle Paul. His collection of antique furniture, paintings, vases and other knickknacks fill the modest house. The history and contents of the house dominates all that goes on within it. Even sitting outside having lunch around the big wooden table recreates an old photograph of the previous generation dining al fresco. (And it turns out that the props are actual antiques, chosen by Assayas and lent to the production.)

Hélène (Edith Scob), the mother, is a complicated character. She accepts each birthday present with a complaint, before opening them and giving a vague apology afterwards. The cordless phone set, never unboxed, haunts the film like a ghost. With the past so obviously haunting the present, she makes plans so that it will not haunt the future. With her passing years, she is conscious of her legacy – the burden of the collection, as well as her true relationship with her uncle – and starts the conversation to help her children know how to pass it onto museums and auction houses.

“No need to become keepers of a tomb”

The mother dies in the cut between one scene and another. There’s no announcement. It just happens and it’s obvious from the action. George Williamson’s review on Eye for Film suggests that the three children now in their forties fulfil the roles of sentimentalist, realist and capitalist.

  • The oldest son, Frédéric, is the only one living in France. He’d keep the collection as a family museum for them all to return. His instinct is to procrastinate and to hold onto the past in order to pass it onto their children to decide.
  • Juliette Binoche looks impossibly young playing Adrienne, with striking dyed blonde hair and wearing a vivid orange fleece. She’s got her great uncle’s flair for design and art, and although she can recognise and date older pieces, her passion is for modern, contemporary design. She sees the collection as a curse that should be sold off.
  • The youngest brother, Jérémie, is taking a chance with his career and basing the family at a sports shoe manufacturer in China for the next few years. He’d prefer to dispose of the collection to use his share to buy a house in Beijing.

The tension rises as two younger siblings disagree with their older brother. Frédéric is distraught, and his driving goes from bad to worse ... even for a Frenchman! Surprisingly few dents in his Renault car. But will he be able to let go if le Musée d’Orsay is willing to take the majority of the collection?

Sitting around the table - Summer Hours

It’s a slow, gentle examination of family relationships and dealing with inheritance and how we all build “our own internalised museums”. And despite the obvious riches and artefacts all around, it’s the overlooked and forgotten that turn out to be valuable.

“He said to chose anything ... I chose something ordinary.”

The house’s long-time servant Eloise has perhaps most to lose by Hélène’s death. By not voting to keep the collection intact and in-place, her services are no longer needed. Regardless of all she has seen and learnt over the years about the family, she seems the most willing to let go. Her loyalty and faithfulness is rewarded when her old favourite vase turns out to be unexpectedly valuable ... and hers to keep.

And the plastic bag containing the broken pieces of a statue that was bust during childhood play has been sitting in a cupboard for 30+ years turns out to be possible to restore. Maybe showing that the relationships that have been stretched and damaged over the inheritance can be repaired too after the passage of time?

The film’s bad points? There’s an excessive amount of bird cheeping in the outdoor scenes. As if someone bought the effects CD and wanted to get their money’s worth! And the French dialogue seemed badly out of sync with the actors’ mouths – thank goodness for the subtitles.

Just as Bernard warned in the animation workshop, there was no zoom in the film. And the film ends as it began, with equilibrium restored and the old house once again bustling with music, talking and drinking. The younger generation – one of Hélène’s granddaughters throwing one last weekend party in the house she expected to be coming back to well into her adulthood.

All serious film buffs will have realised that this is a French film masquerading as a Taiwanese film. I certainly didn’t twig it, but an interview with the director Assayas explained more in an interview with the Curzon’s magazine:

So what does all that have to do with Taiwan? “There’s this view of the passing of time, which you could call ‘Taiwanese’,” explains Assayas, referring to a narrative style which eschews dramatic climaxes, preferring to let events unfold at a real-life pace.

[Did anyone cover than in their GCSE Media Studies, or BA in Film Studies?]

“But a lot of it is to do with the relationship between Asian art and Impressionism ... Objects from that period [1840 – 1905] were very influenced by Asian art, and Asian art has a very specific relationship to nature,” he says, “it’s always fascinated me because there’s something so organic about it. It’s about light, nature, man, and it kind of captured something.”

So there you go. Don’t say you didn’t learn something by stopping by AiB!

Well worth catching if when it passes through Belfast. (Queen’s Film Theatre Fri 8 Aug – Thu 14 Aug showing at 6.45pm.)

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