[15 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Note: Possible Spoilers
Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, the payload of quality films came from contemporary French directors: Phillipe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale and Olivier Assayas’ poignant Summer Hours filled in where American releases fell artistically flat. With a distinctly European sensibility, these films explored contemporary familial tensions, the impact of global multiculturalism on the individual, and the inexplicable everyday dramas that make life much more interesting. Mercifully, not one of these films had a slick car chase or any garish CGI effects, yet each possessed an intimate joie de vivre that was nonetheless deeply satisfying.
Each of these films had something else amazing in common that your garden variety American-family dramas generally balk at: they explored multiple contemporary female perspectives with realism and honesty. Assayas’ newest film, and in fact his entire oeuvre, is consistently magnanimous too, in representing a universe of real women and colorful female characters of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, from modern aristocrats to servants. Attention to detail is paramount in this world, and Assayas’ women are always of note, and usually at center stage.
Writer-director Assayas has brilliantly deconstructed the myth of Maggie Cheung-as-action-star twice now (Irma Vep and Clean), and scripted good parts for hard-to-cast women such as Gina Gershon, Chloe Sevingy and Connie Nielson (Demonlover) and Asia Argento (Boarding Gate). With Summer Hours, he again focuses his attention on the secret inner lives of women, yet the film is more of a true, gender-blind ensemble piece that asks hard questions that are universal to both sexes: Where is home? What do we do with the possessions of dying generations? Do places and objects sustain a sort of emotional life long after the original owners have abandoned them? Can families sustain being families in a world where no one stays in the same place for more than a few months anymore?
All of these pressing questions are addressed by the director with a signature modish, intellectual style. Assayas keenly observes these cross-cultural leanings, and in the process has created a film that is at once intimate and epic in scope -– a family drama that looks at art, art history, nationalism, sibling rivalry, wealth, nostalgia, inheritance and the changes in sentimentality from one generation to the next. Yes, there are many women in this particular story, but as the filmmaker pointed out during our chat, any affinity for the fairer sex is purely coincidental. His attraction to personality is the key to his creative drives.
One of Summer Hours’ most pleasing properties is the brisk, clean style that Assayas employs -– even though it is loaded with many heady topics, the finished work always remains unfussy and meditative, dripping with sunlight, and tears in equal measure. The film is filled with movement: movement of people, emotions, and artifacts, and the director’s camera is constantly reflecting this with the tech-savvy approach we’ve come to expect from his work.
The affable Mr. Assayas and I spoke by phone about getting French movies seen and sold in the States during a global depression, the chameleonic abilities of Maggie Cheung, and why he thinks much of the modern, big-budget filmmaking landscape is “an alienated world”. A true cinephile, Assayas got his start in the industry working as a film critic (for the influential Cahiers du Cinema), and his book of interviews Conversations with Ingmar Bergman, co-authored by Stig Bjorkman, was published in 1990.
PopMatters: There are several important concepts that play out in Summer Hours -– nationalism, navigating the grieving process, art and history, globalization; yet it never feels overly “full” –- there is such a lean quality to the material despite how dense and far-reaching in scope it is. In the film, the main characters are from a fairly well-to-do family, and are in possession of some priceless artifacts of national significance, yet somehow the idea of dividing belongings is so universal -– I had never really seen a film address this properly before (or so realistically). How do you, as a writer-director, speak to all of these topics without the film getting too bogged down in heavy sentiment?
Assayas: I started with an extremely simple canvas, I think. It was really basic because initially it was more like a short story. It was meant to be a short film, initially. The simplicity or the backbone of the story remained because it started with the objects. Art works are born of relationships to the real life of real human beings and once they finish their life cycle, they end up in a zoo, meaning in a museum. I wanted to write a very short story around that and gradually I started creating characters and the characters had their own lives, and they were a family, and they had complex interaction between them. It kind of grew.
I was extremely concerned with using tone, a style, a lightness of touch, which had to do, also, with the fact that I was using this kind of impressionist background. I wanted to have the same kind of lightness because I knew I would be dealing with things that were difficult or complex and eventually painful. I was not immune to the emotions within the film. I had lost my mother a couple of months before we shot the film, so it’s a strange mixture of being extremely concerned with, I suppose, the heavier or the more dramatic aspects of whatever is going on and the constant concern of keeping some kind of lightness.
And I didn’t want to be nostalgic. I did not want to make a film that had anything to do with this notion that things were better before. Deep inside me I have this trust in the future, this trust in the process of life. So whatever I was describing, which is obviously loss, mourning, etcetera, had to always come with the notion that there is a certain fatality and certain logic within the process of life, which also, obviously, has to do with destruction.
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.
PopMatters: Since my column for PopMatters, Suffragette City, is dedicated to the role of women in film, and since writing and providing female actors with brilliant parts is something you’re very good at, I’d like to ask you what are some of your favorite female film performances?
Assayas: (laughing) Well, that is a very complex question. To me it is difficult to give you a good answer here, because a lot of my movies have been determined by the central women. I made a movie with Asia Argento. I made a couple of movies with Maggie Cheung. This one, you know, has three different, important characters that are all from different generations. There is Edith Scob, Juliette Binoche, and Alice de Lencquesaing. To me it’s individuals that inspire me to see films. I would not have made Boarding Gate if it had not been inspired by Asia Argento, as an individual, not as a woman. It’s just the person she is and her modernity. She embodies something that’s just so contemporary and has such a strong way, and she embodies such an interesting relationship to cinema. It’s exciting for a filmmaker.
And the same for Maggie Cheung, because she is someone who is between different cultures. With her I’ve been able to make movies that deal with the interconnectedness of cultures, because I was inspired by that individual. To me, it’s not about ‘men’ or ‘women’, it’s about what gets you going, in terms of writing, in terms of making a film. I’ve been extremely lucky, because there is one American actress I admire, that’s Maggie Gyllehaal, I worked with her in a segment in a collective movie called Paris je t’aime, and I hope I can work with her again because she has something so specific, so alive. She is a very inspiring, modern actress.
PopMatters: Cries and Whispers is my favorite film. I felt as though Summer Hours’ themes of death, sibling rivalry, and the division of possessions that no one is really attached to, were reflected somewhat in Summer Hours, right down to the country home setting and the dismissal of the family’s housekeeper who gets to choose one piece of memorabilia to take with her. What are some of your favorite Bergman moments? I know you must have plenty…
Assayas: (laughing) Yes, I do! I think I would not be making the movies I am making if it were not for Bergman. I met him in the early ‘90s and I made a book of conversations with him. He’s just one of the great filmmakers, ever. I think Scenes from a Marriage is a film that amazes me and intimidates me. It’s like the ultimate movie about a couple. When you watch that movie, the complexity, the scope of it, it’s such a universal theme. Once in a while, I think ‘yeah, I should make a movie about a couple’, but as a modern film about a couple, it kind of exhausts the subject. It’s terrifying, because if you want to deal with the same thing…
His last film Saraband, is just otherworldly. It’s filmmaking on a level that I can’t even. I suppose that Winter Light is just one of my favorite films. Fanny and Alexander. Persona, it’s just so influential for me. When you make movies, it’s not so much about being inspired or influenced by a filmmaker, it’s the fact that they have made movies that give you the notion that that specific thing can be reached by cinema. The take cinema so far, they just go so deep within the human soul, that it just gives you confidence that it can be done. You just hope and pray that you can achieve a fraction of what they have achieved. For me, Bergman has been like that.
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Assayas is currently filming Ilich – Story of Carlos, based on the life of Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the head of a global terrorist ring that raided OPEC headquarters in 75. Summer Hours opens in limited release May 15th.