Summer Hours

An Interview with Olivier Assayas

by Matt Mazur

14 May 2009


Concepts of "Transition"

PopMatters: I’m very interested in the concepts of “transition” as defined in Summer Hours: “transition” of age, of life and death; “transition” of people and of property and borders. How important is it for your films to reflect this idea of life as being something that is constantly changing, moving and surprising?

Assayas: I suppose at some point it turns into a theme in my films, but initially it is mostly how I experience life. I think my writing, my films, are never too connected from my experience of the world, in terms of my perception of society around me, or my imaginations or whatever, but it has to be tangible, it has to be real. In a sense I feel that modern society it’s pretty banal just to even to say it, but we travel further, easier, longer. But ultimately the logic of the globalization of the economies has made every single local business have to become multi-national to survive and that involves all of the people working in that business. And it can be people from different social categories.

Also, I think about our awareness of the world, in terms of how we look at it through various media, relationships to information, to images. I feel we live in a world that is more and more fragmented, more and more diverse and in a world which has such complexities in terms of ‘present’ that we end up losing whatever grounds us to our connection to the ‘past’. I’ve seen what felt the most solid, the most structured, in French society, in European society, gradually lose its meaning, and lose its value in favor of an increased sense of the ‘present’.

Our obsession with the ‘present’ has become somehow alienating and I am totally convinced that history, culture and the belief and understanding of history is something that makes people stronger, more aware, and ultimately, to use big words, more politically conscious. We’re losing the political consciousness of the world that is connected to conscience of history.

PopMatters: Most typical American audiences, outside of a few markets, will not have access to a film like Summer Hours on the big screen, and often it feels like there is a kind of hesitance in general from the casual American film-going public to see these films in the theater, no matter how good they are. So, since the American economy is basically in the toilet at this moment, I wonder what the global ramifications of this are on a film like Summer Hours? How does a film like this get picked up and distributed in the States and what are some of the obstacles you’ve encountered in getting the film seen here?

Assayas: I make European films and I feel kind of lucky that they are seen at all in North America, because, you know, most of French and European filmmaking are basically not seen. I’ve been pretty lucky because my films have had some kind of minor distribution in the US, but, of course, you know, just only in the main cities. There is a certain level of awareness, but when you make movies, basically, you hope to address to the broader audience, and ultimately try to deal universal issues, and somehow you have this deep belief that you are making something that’s kind of worthwhile in the sense that if it connects with audiences it will just increase their awareness of the world that they live in.

I think the problem is the opposite: you have the media; you have the main stream movies that are about, to be polite, a very alienated world. Those movies and media, the majority of movies and media, in France, or in the States, are about creating a distorted view of the world is and how it functions. And I think that’s why it’s so important to make movies that deal with the realities of the world, to confront complexities on the screen, and hoping that it will reach some broad audience. What’s exciting about movies is that they can reach a broad audience, socially. It’s not like when you are in the visual arts, you know your audience will be extremely limited, it’s a very small world.

Movies are open, movies are made to be seen by a lot of people and they try and can mean deep things to those people. Especially in a time of complex turmoil. We live in a complex world where, again, the economy is changing the lives of individuals, in ways those individuals never really asked for. You just try to grab those things and just put them onscreen and then you hope that, because you have faith in the medium, you have faith in cinema, you have a belief that it can be put so some kind of good use (laughs). So you do your best, and you hope it will be seen.

PopMatters: Well said! I have to tell you, after I saw the film I spoke with two female audience members who were both equally upset by the way you chose to end it. Their complaint was that they felt it was an almost “disrespectful” choice to have the granddaughter throwing a party at the house after everything that transpires there…

Assayas: It’s essential to the film. It’s totally what the film is about. I did not want to be nostalgic. I did not want to make a movie about the loss of beauty in a world becoming materialistic and blah blah blah. Not only is it conventional, it’s also completely the opposite of what I am trying to convey, because to me, the end scene, its really very much about the complexity I was trying to explain. On the one side, its cruel the way that time passes, because we have come to love this house, we have become attached to it, we have memories with it, and so on and so forth, and then all of a sudden, you have those kids and they are not aware of the past and they don’t care. Ultimately, the furniture is gone and they don’t even see the ghosts that we see in the house, and there is something cruel about it. Because we have preconceptions, that ultimately nothing has been passed on and the children of Frederic [Charles Berling] don’t care about whatever their father cared for.

Gradually, we realize that it’s completely opposite: the daughter, Sylvie [Alice de Lencquesaing] has understood everything because she is the one who lost the most. They are teenagers and teenagers have very small worlds. They have the world of their parents, their grandparents, these few places; it’s them who are losing something. At the end, Sylvie is the one person who understands, in the most subtle terms, what is going on. When she cries at the end, it is because she remembers the place where her grandmother used to take her. What she’s losing, it’s not the object, it’s not the tradition, it’s not the values, it’s not whatever money that stuff was worth, what she is losing is what’s invisible. It’s the nature as it was seen by her grandfather, it’s the soul of the house, and the soul of what good has been passed on within this family and that is now lost. But she knows it’s not tangible, it’s not ‘things’. It’s an emotion. To me, it’s the important of film.

The film ends with a sense of loss, of course, but at the same time there is hope, because something that is deep and complex has nonetheless been passed on.

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