Film Review: Summer Hours (L'Heure d'Été)

The surviving members of a once-prominent artist's family must settle a complicated estate. Carefully directed generational drama with deep emotional undercurrents.

Modest, quiet and deeply satisfying, Summer Hours (L'heure d'Été) finds writer and director Olivier Assayas returning to an observational style he employed in films like Late August, Early September. Originally conceived as one of several shorts to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Musee d'Orsay, Summer Hours gradually expanded to feature length. Now it encompasses three generations of a well-to-do French family who must decide how to dispose of an uncle's artwork. Working with a superb ensemble, Assayas uses this premise to examine how art affects our lives.

As family members share a summer holiday in their uncle Paul Berthier's rural house, elderly Hélène (Edith Scob) discusses the future with her son Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist. Over the years, her brother amassed an extraordinary collection of furniture, pottery and artifacts, to say nothing of his own artwork and journals. But much of the collection, like the house itself, needs restoration that her children can't afford.

Frédéric's brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) is considering moving to China to work, while their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer, has been living in New York. Their decision about what to do with the estate is forced on them sooner than expected. Should they try to hold the collection together, or should they disperse their family heirlooms to museums and auction houses?

A basic plot synopsis makes Summer Hours seem like a stereotypical French film, one filled with wine, cigarettes and endless talk. But the themes Assayas raises have more widespread appeal. For example, each character approaches art in a different manner. For Eloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène's longtime housekeeper, a vase is simply an object of beauty; for Jérémie, it might finance his relocation, and further separation from his siblings. For Frédéric, it represents the history of his family, something he senses is slipping away. But how can one remain loyal to a family that no longer shares a purpose or direction?

In talking about the film, Assayas cites both Chekhov and the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (whose Flight of the Red Balloon was also commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay). A third influence is Jean Renoir, who once explained his characters by saying that they all had reasons for the way they behaved. How Assayas explores the psychological underpinnings to the family members here—why they make the decisions they do, how fragile their emotions are—determines the style of his film. The free-flowing camera (by longtime collaborator Eric Gautier) alternately isolates and combines characters in extended shots that feel organic and effortless. The acting is understated but still incisive, with Berling especially effective as an academic ill-suited to change.

The most successful element of the film may be Assayas' sympathy for his characters. There are no villains in Summer Hours. No one is singled out as wrong or misguided. By the end of the story, after difficult decisions have been made, Assayas turns his attention to a third generation, which must find its own way to deal with the past.