The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of the French film Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) is more coffee-table book than standard DVD. The physical packaging itself is understated and gorgeous, like the film it houses: a dreamy, soft-focus Redon panel serves as the background for clean, modern typeface. Because Summer Hours is a film that deals in aesthetics, beautiful packaging is appropriate, and the enclosed booklet (which is largely comprised of an essay by film critic and director Kent Jones) lends the DVD a tangible presence, something lovely to hold in one’s hands.
Directed by Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours is concerned with the fading legacy of the Berthier family. The film opens on a hazy late-summer day in the French countryside. Three generations of the family have gathered to celebrate grandmother Hélène’s (Edith Scob) 75th birthday. The opening scenes are at once lazy and full of life: grandchildren on a treasure hunt, two dogs named Bijou and Pretzel, and an elaborate family lunch set against the backdrop of Hélène’s gorgeous, if decaying, estate.
Hélène is the niece and perhaps lover of (fictional) French painter, Paul Berthier. She inherited his collection, which includes work by real-life turn-of-the-last-century artists and designers like Corot, Redon, and Majorelle. (Among the many benefits of the generously annotated special features section of the disc is the knowledge that the furniture and paintings used in Summer Hours are the real McCoy.)
During her birthday visit, Hélène brings her oldest child, Frédéric (Charles Berling), into her study to discuss what will soon be his and his siblings’ inheritance. Frédéric bristles at his mother’s mention of her impending mortality, and shrugs off her mentions of re-cataloging the work, and a plaster Degas he and his brother broke as boys. Frédéric tells Hélène that everything will be taken care of, that her grandchildren will inherit the Corots and the house alike, and that she won’t die for quite some time.
Shortly after this last summer visit, Hélène does die. (This seems improbable since she looks devastatingly chic and not particularly old at her birthday party, but never mind.) Hélène’s collection and what is to be done with it is the main thrust of the film: Frédéric and his younger siblings, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) must decide what to do with their mother’s things, and more dauntingly, her grand old house. Frédéric, an economist, is the only one among his siblings still living in France. Adrienne is an accessories designer for high-end department stores like Takashimaya in New York, while Jérémie lives in China working for sportswear manufacturer Puma.
A film about an art collection and an inheritance sounds banal and slow, but contained in these themes is all the drama and fascination of families and relationships. Summer Hours flies by, at least in part because it keeps pace with real life: cell phone calls interrupt conversations, family dynamics are played out, and there’s a lot of sitting around drinking, yet we are never bored.
From the very beginning of the movie, the relationship between objects, people, and their relative importance is explored. If this sounds unappealingly high-minded, it’s not. Summer Hours is that rare combination of intellectual approach and genuinely enjoyable story to the casual observer. Hélène and her children talk about art the way regular people do. After the family leaves following her birthday party (and unsuccessful gifts of a cordless phone and “old person” mohair blanket) Hélène’s maid, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) who is at least her age, maybe older, comes into the darkened room where Hélène is sitting and asks if she’d like some supper. Hélène is in no mood for food, and is clearly still dwelling on her recent conversation with Frédéric. She tells Éloïse, “A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories no one cares to hear anymore. There’s the residue; there are objects. I don’t want them to weigh on them”.
Adrienne, and Jérémie, and especially Frédéric’s personalities reveal themselves as the three of them decide what to do with their mother’s stuff. Of the three, much of this burden falls to Frédéric, as he is the eldest, and the only one still living in France. Frédéric wants to preserve the house as it is for his children, and has as good as promised them the Corots, though his teenage son and daughter express little interest in them. Because they live abroad, Adrienne and Jérémie are less attached to the objects d’art, and to the house itself. Of the house, Adrienne blatantly declares “It no longer means that much to me, nor does France”. While Adrienne and Jérémie are elsewhere in the world, Frédéric is forever tied to the matriarchy, both that of their mother and their country. Because he has stayed, and because he is the eldest, he inherits the mantle of becoming the older generation, and is the one to make sacrifices.
Summer Hours is most successful in the way it seamlessly integrates important artwork into the fabric of every day life. Hélène uses the Majorelle desk in her workspace. It’s cluttered with post-its, appraisals, and the box for the cordless phone. Later on in the movie, Frédéric and his wife visit the donated pieces at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. (The Musée is the actual owner of the art used in the movie.) Frédéric is dismayed seeing his mother’s things propped up and flatteringly lit in the museum. He says to his wife: “Doesn’t it seem caged?” and she tells him “It’s history for everyone”. Frédéric responds that it’s “Disenchanted. Inanimate”. The Berthier family is further removed from France’s cultural legacy by sterile museum preparation, though this allows many people access to the art only one family has enjoyed. Frédéric must come to appreciate that his attachment to the objects is no longer important compared to their cultural significance to France.
A gratifying counterpoint to Frédéric’s loss is Éloïse’s unwitting gain. While Adrienne is going through the house with appraisers, Frédéric tells Éloïse that she should choose something from the house to take with her. Not wanting to take a valuable object, Éloïse chooses a bubbly glass green vase she kept in the kitchen and often used for flowers. Frédéric knows the piece is valuable, but says nothing to Éloïse. The sight of Éloïse walking away from the house with the vase lovingly yet casually tucked under her arm reveals the film’s attitude towards art—it can and should be part of our everyday rituals. This doesn’t demean the art, rather it elevates the life.
The following summer, before Helene’s house is sold, Frédéric’s children Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling, Charles Berling’s real-life son) have a party in the empty house with their friends. The party is improbably perfect: music blasts as someone DJs from a laptop, scraggly Parisian teenagers smoke, drink, and breakdance in what used to be Paul Berthier’s studio. The house is after all, just a house, and it’s refreshing to see it repurposed and maybe reinvented, not propped up as a shrine for someone who’s gone.
Sylvie leads her boyfriend by the hand into the orchard. She is a little wistful, but doesn’t seem to share her father’s regret. She says, “There’s a picture of my grandmother here picking cherries as a child. She told me I’d bring my children here”. Sylvie looks the boy right in the face. “My grandmother’s dead. The house has been sold”. She leads him through the undergrowth of the orchard; not one to dwell in sentimentality. “I don’t want them to find us.”
The special features section of the Blu Ray is appropriately decked out. There’s a making-of featurette with extensive commentary from Assayas, and interviews with Binoche and Berling. Clearly, the director and cast have approached their roles thoughtfully, and care about the story they’re bringing to the screen.
For art aficionados, there’s Inventory, the hour long documentary about the provenance of the art used in the film. The Musée d’Orsay collection is examined in depth—it’s like attending an art history class, but more interesting.
If you’re into HD, then the Blu-Ray edition is worth purchasing for its high-tech transfer and streamlined soundtrack to match. (The DVD asserts that Assayas supervised and approved the high definition production, for whatever that’s worth.) Even on my non-HD set, Summer Hours popped of the screen like technicolor, rich and lush. Reminiscent indeed of the poignant passing of long sweet summer days.