Summer Hours is a slow-moving, at times poignantly observant family tale that never quite comes together as a whole. From a relatively simple premise – a French upper-middle-class family’s dispersion of their mother’s inheritance after her death – Olivier Assayas examines modern French bourgeoisie’s complex negotiations with its own cultural heritage in a globalized era, yet too often loses sight of that subject in favour of narrative technicalities.
Hélène (Édith Scob) has lived a full life. When we are first introduced to her, she’s laughing at her eldest son Frédéric’s (Charles Berling) clumsily opened bottle of champagne in celebration of her 75th birthday, basking in the presence of her children and grandchildren with the matter-of-fact serenity of someone who knows they have everything they could ever reasonably expect to need. Their big birthday gift to her, as one might expect from practical-minded 21st century people, is a three-unit telephone set – “that way, you won’t have to run around.” explains her daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, sporting a distractingly unconvincing blonde wig). The old woman reacts with befuddlement, then with annoyance, and finally with a resigned laugh. In 3 shots and 32 seconds, Assayas has subtly summarized his story’s primary theme and arc: the inescapable prevalence of time and the sacrifices we must concede to it.
As family-reunion drama customs would have it, Hélène bears a family secret the likes of which is generally kept as deeply entombed as possible for appearances’ sake. Yet one of the small beauties of Summer Hours is that hers is hidden in plain sight in the form of highly valuable paintings and drawings by her beloved uncle Paul Berthier, along with other sculptures and furniture that she intends to pass on to her children upon her death. Her children’s reluctant decision to sell these belongings to various buyers – including the house itself – is inextricably tied to their unwillingness to see and confront the part of their past that they all represent.
The decision to push Hélène’s incestuous affair with her uncle into the characters’ subconscious rather than explicitly make it the story’s driving force is a psychologically astute one, and the film’s best scenes are those in which Assayas lets his characters’ feelings timidly emerge from behind their banal words and half-concealed glances. Unfortunately, his film loses its emotional and political heart in long conversation scenes in which lawyers, civil servants and family members go over the details of the inheritance sharing process using plain-spoken dialogue that aims for naturalism but only achieves the kind of turgid triviality usually heard on French television.
The lifelessness of these scenes is all the more disappointing when you remember the sneakily incisive lines that peppered the first half of the film, such as Adrienne and her younger brother Jérémie’s wife Angela (Valérie Bonneton) citing their and their children’s lack of attachment to France as an additional point in favour of their decision to continue their lives and careers overseas. “French is the language we speak at home”, Angela casually tells us over a glass of wine, her inflection on the first word’s last syllable implying a “nothing more” that her next words all but confirm. These little moments expose a contentious point of fracture in modern France that Olivier Assayas himself, with his many multilingual films and American stars, embodies to a T: the globalization of its cultural elite and their perceived disconnection from the roots of the art, literature and cinema they create. Voluntarily or not, this underlying political theme informs the characters’ struggles, evasions and uncertainties, and remains mostly unaddressed in the film’s sluggish second act.
And then, miraculously, Frédéric’s woes as a parent smash it back into the picture like a wake-up call. His daughter’s arrest for trafficking stolen clothes and possession of marijuana reveals his own immaturity (“I don’t get caught!” he retorts to her remark on his own consumption of drugs) and potential legacy as a parent and cultural forebear. Think of the entire post-release scene as a quietly political riff on the infamous “I learned it by watching you!” PSA. This undercurrent reaches its final destination in an ending sequence that mirrors the opening images of Frédéric’s teens accompanying their younger cousins in their treasure hunt across the ancestral home grounds. The teens are still there, now accompanied by classmates and friends their own age as they prepare a wild party in a house that no longer belongs to them. The simple innocence of the earlier images may be gone but the lust for life animating them still remains, in the form of long tracking shots that capture young Sylvie (Alice De Lencquesaing) in suspended states of emotion and sensation, somewhere between busyness and fun, banality and joy, conflict and peace. It would be easy, especially given the underlying theme’s inherent appeal to reactionaries, to see this vision of teens installing speakers, smoking joints and occupying rooms for partying and presumed sex as a condemnation of ignorant, spoilt millennials trespassing on their ancestors’ lands with neither respect nor understanding for what they represent, but Assayas chooses instead to film it as a place fulfilling the purpose it always had: to welcome life and build memories. This final compromise may not provide all the answers to the complicated issues of transmission and inheritance in the context of France’s very particular model and history, but its hopeful eloquence speaks more convincingly than any polemical text ever could.
At its best, Summer Hours meditates on filial and cultural identity with intelligent empathy that Olivier Assayas’s camera expresses in dimmed colours and artful days-for-nights, evocatively completed by his familiar fade-to-black closings. Regrettably, his subsequent neglect of his characters’ interior journeys fails to deliver on these visual promises, suggesting an uneven grasp of the subject matter and resulting in a film that resembles its central character in all the wrong ways: confused, semi-oblivious and emotionally incomplete.