REVIEW: L’heure d’été [Summer Hours] [2008]

“It’s nicely displayed”

What is the true value of something? Whether it a house, paintings, heirlooms, or photos, do objects hold more worth monetarily or sentimentally? Just the fact that the deceased is taxed upon death shows how important the money is to the whole system of life, rendering one’s childhood memories into commodity. Olivier Assayas’s film L’heure d’été [Summer Hours] delves into this very topic, showing a generational gap as well as a societal one when it comes to a trio of siblings’ mother’s estate. Two of them have moved on to America and China respectively, leaving their heritage behind for advancement and a future for their families. To them France is but a fleeting memory, something they will always cherish yet never feel the need to return to. The eldest has a differing opinion on it all, though, seeing what his mother left behind as a legacy to be cherished and kept in the family for generations to come. Out voted and unable to buy out his brother and sister, Frédéric must acquiesce and watch his entire youth become dismantled and shipped away.

The fact that mother Hélène is the wealthy niece of a famous artist, John Bertier, becomes the perfect catalyst for Assayas’s message. Her house is a mansion, beautiful in its derelict state, containing treasures beyond measure within. Each child remembers the artist and story behind every single painting, sculpture, and piece of furniture; the histories are ingrained in their heads. Their very lives were shaped in this home, growing up and experiencing life. The two boys even have the rare recollection of accidentally destroying an original work by Degas. The horror! One doesn’t have to wonder about the hell Frédéric remembers reigning down on him after that indiscretion. Through it all, they have known how the Musee d’Orsay coveted so much of what existed inside those walls, constantly staying in touch for the off chance that purchase was in the cards. But what about family honor and remembrance, allowing the grandchildren to grow old themselves, vacationing at this spot they have been visiting for their whole lives, one day taking their own children as well? How much is that lineage worth compared to the dollars and cents earned at auction, money that will be decimated by the enormous estate tax imposed by the government? One has to look at the make-up of each character to understand both the gain in selling as well as the enormous loss … or lack thereof.

Adrienne is played by Juliette Binoche and is the most distant from her homeland of the three. She is now a resident of the United States and calls it her home after making a career and a life with her current boyfriend there. To her all the artwork belongs to collectors to be seen by the world and not hermetically sealed in a tomb to rot in a house she has no interest in ever seeing again. Very pragmatic and objective, unloading the house is a necessity insomuch as lifting the burden from all their shoulders. Jérémie, an effective Jérémie Renier, is on the fence, but without a choice. He values the sentimental attributes of the property and things, sees the memories each piece projects once laying his eyes on it, but life has gotten away from the era of sitting back and enjoying the past. He is about to permanently move to China for work, unable to come back for at least five years. His children have become modernized and speak English, keeping France as a place they know but never felt connected to. Money is needed and, while he didn’t think it at first, the math does paint a picture to not be taken for granted.

It is Frédéric alone that held an innocent sense of utopia on those hallowed grounds. He stayed around Paris, building his family and taking root with his heritage. To him, it all has value for not only the Bertier clan, but for France itself. Living in the past, full of emotion and reverence, the legacy of John and Hélène is also that of his children. Walking through the house with his son and daughter, he shows them the Corot paintings they know well—the most valuable inclusions to the collection—and says how one day they’ll own them. Unexpected is the response of complete ambivalence, the words ‘they’re of a different era’ spouting out as a back is turned. These are teenagers in the 21st century; they are out having fun, getting drunk and high with their friends, while arts and culture take a distant back seat. Charles Berling’s turn as this defeated man proves to be the glue holding the film together. As the only one who truly sees what is around him, he not only gives each object its intrinsic value, but proves them all to be much more expensive than any appraiser’s price put upon them. His mother’s death isn’t just the loss of a generation—making he and his siblings the oldest in the family—it is also the death of his dreams and aspirations. No one else wants the future he has envisioned; they have all evolved to the times while he stayed back, unable to let go.

Besides the stellar acting—Summer Hours is a character driven piece from the start, a sort of Big Chill reckoning of family secrets and admissions—the film contains this very thought-provoking question of value. A vase can be the work of a famous artist, yet because it was despised by the lady of the house and relegated to be the maid’s flower container, does it than become worthless? This family’s memory of that glasswork is of their dear Éloïse and her constant addition of color to the rooms with her flower arrangements. They don’t know it is a priceless work worthy of museum display; to them it’s an extension of this woman in their lives. Which is more important? I could only imagine how surreal it would be to see something that was once so commonplace as your great uncle’s desk viewed by patrons in an art museum, unable to be touched and set with a placard describing its origin. People paying to see it have only the objective details told to them, either appreciating it or not depending on taste, calling it original or just another example of Art Nouveau. But to Frédéric and his wife, that desk is a lifetime of laughs and tears, good times and bad. And just because someone is young, such as the couple’s daughter, does not mean he or she doesn’t understand this feeling too. Loss is loss, and whether a child can express it or not, through words or actions, it is felt. Memories can be argued as invaluable, while sometimes the objects embedded with them are not. This is life and Assayas understands it as such. Death is always bigger than just one person.

L’heure d’été [Summer Hours] 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Jeremie Renier as Jeremie, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne and Charles Berling as Frederic in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release
[2] Dominique Reymond as Lisa and Charles Berling as Frederic in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release


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