Reviews

A Beautiful Combination of Intellectual Subject Matter and a Genuinely Enjoyable Story

Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours starring the always-dazzling Juliette Binoche is rich and lush. Reminiscent, indeed, of the poignant passing of long sweet summer days.


Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été)

Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Rénier, Edith Scob
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Studio: MK2 Productions
US Release Date: 20-04-2010

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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