Summer Hours: An Interview with Olivier Assayas

Matt Mazur

Assayas’ newest film Summer Hours, and in fact his entire oeuvre, is consistently magnanimous, in representing a universe of real women and colorful female characters of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds.

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.

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