I tend to harp on nostalgia quite a bit, and I can’t quite decide why this is. Certainly, I enjoyed my own childhood, but I like growing up way more. And while I have no problem with older movies or music, I don’t buy into the appeal of liking something because of how old a thing is, or much a property defines an era, whether that era is my own, or before me. This isn’t to say that anyone who celebrates the past is stupid, or that they’re wrong for liking what they like–though, I do half-believe that many of these people truly bought into the “Make America Great Again” log line of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And, on some level, I see the allure of an era that feels antiquated, and maybe even simpler. The practices and culture that came before us are vital to our present, and tracking that through-line is always enlightening in one way or another. But what is old and what is new are never as different as we’re often led to believe.
Summer Hours seems to bear this out significantly. French filmmaker Olivier Assayas–who is best known, in recent years, for proving to the arthouse community that Kristen Stewart can actually act–crafts a deceptively quiet drama, exploring our relationship with the past, with parent-child dynamics, and with art. Summer Hours follows the Marly family: matriarch Hélène (Édith Scob), children Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), as Hélène is reaching the twilight of her life. She has spent much of her life preserving the work of her artist uncle, but she’s ready to let her collection out into the world, including her home in the French country. Frédéric, more or less the lead of the film, is resistant to his mother’s wishes. What Hélène knows, and what Frédéric can’t quite grasp, is that the past is going to get away from him in one way or another.
Upon Hélène’s death, Adrienne and Jérémie are not nearly as conflicted. They’ve both left the country, and aren’t coming back. Adrienne made her decision long ago, living in America, visiting infrequently, and almost constantly framed separately from her family. Jérémie just stumbled into his life, where he makes shoes in China for Puma. He thought he might make his way back to France, but his family and career have changed his priorities. Frédéric never left the motherland, and is much closer to his childhood than his younger siblings. He tries to hold onto the house, the art, the antique furniture, even making plans to keep as much as he can for his children. But he’s outvoted. Adrienne and Jérémie are not out to hurt their brother, and Frédéric keeps most of his pain to himself–the lone exception being when, as the three of them meet with the executor of Hélène’s estate, Jérémie says he’s met with a relator who can sell the house quickly, at which Frédéric bristles quite openly; this moment captures the way grief turns unsentimental decisions into insensitive betrayals, and when someone moves a little too quick for another’s loss, that loss if felt even more keenly.
Tonally, Summer Hours feels sedate, even unsentimental, constantly holding the audience at arm’s length, which can confuse from the reality that the film is simply delicate. The way the paintings and old desks are delicate. The way our memories are delicate. The way our emotions, in the midst of death, are delicate. That doesn’t keep Assayas from pulling punches. If anything, they land harder. No matter how difficult losing a loved one is, life doesn’t take a break. We have to pack up their things. We have to have frank conversations about what they left behind. We have to accept the lack of resolution their absence leaves. Frédéric wants to believe in his idyllic upbringing, but seeing everyone else move on so quickly, looking on as his mother’s things are given to museums and curators, and learning that his mother and her uncle were engaged in a passionate affair, forces all of that to slip away.
The matter-of-factness with which Assayas depicts the aftermath of Hélène’s death is frighteningly real, capturing the surprising composure her survivors have to prop up. Much of this has to do with the first act of the film, where we spend time with Hélène is with all of her family at once on her 75th birthday. In early summer, soft sunlight warms this final gathering. Make no mistake, this is a family. As kind as they are to one another, they know each other well enough to make passive aggressive jabs that they’ll vent about with their significant others. We see them in all of their imperfect, vaguely contemptuous affection. But we also see their kids running through the trees surrounding the property–exploring, on some minor mission. Then the film shifts to cooler, bluer hues. And the branches and foliage Frédéric tore through as a child reflect off of his windshield, as he’s too old for that to be his life.
But as Adrienne and a temporarily-bearded Frédéric prepare to sell of their mother’s things, Hélène’s housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) brings by some flowers–Hélène’s favorites–putting them in a vase that’s bound for The Louvre. This is perhaps the most graceful moment of the films, as Eloise’s gesture accomplishes a few things. She’s able to remember her friend and employer. She’s able to bring life into a home so consumed by death. She’s able to give newfound purpose to an object that was supposed to be relegated as history. That last point is the gentle note on which Summer Hours ends, one with which Frédéric wrestles with as he sees an old desk from Hélène’s studio as an exhibit that museum visitors glance at for a moment, only to walk away after almost no consideration. As is pointed out to Frédéric–who is soon too caught up with his life, and his kids just barely not getting into serious trouble with the law, to give too much more attention to his past–everyone has attachments that are looked upon with indifference by others. Whether they’re kept to themselves, or curated by the finest Parisian art institutes, each person gives their own meaning to whatever they encounter in their lives.
At the top of the film, we see an innocent adventure taking place, the way Frédéric probably remembers his former home to be. At the end, his daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) is using her late grandmother’s home, whose sale is on the verge of closure, to throw a rager for her friends. They smoke and drink, play loud, meaningless dance music, and will almost surely trash the house. But as Sylvie tromps off into the woods with her boyfriend, opening up about the summers she spent with her grandmother, that loss hits her. Time moves forward, but in one way or another, the past hits in ways that we struggle to let go of, and in ways we can never predict. Sylvie’s struck, and hard. And then she isn’t. She and her boyfriend keep going, scaling a stone wall, running into their own forest, the film coming full circle.
Summer Hours is a patient film that is searing with humanity. Subtle performances unfold into powerful payoffs. The camera is almost entirely handheld, making us as familiar with this family’s world as they are. Assayas uses his score sparingly–one of my favorite filmmaking techniques, where a filmmaker doesn’t need to accent a moment with a swelling orchestra, but lets the gravity of a scene speak for itself–so when we hear that moody, gorgeous string ensemble, we’re brought back into the film. A meditative, accomplished work, Summer Hours may not break any ground, but is fine-tuned, with honesty and turns of solemnity and finesse that are almost bewitching.