Summer Hours is what’s generally referred to as a “small” film, but for Olivier Assayas, it represents a comfortable return to form after several self-conscious attempts at rethinking and reinventing the boundaries of his work. Demonlover was a sort-of thriller about the international sex trade; Clean was a combination Anglo/Francophone recovery drama; and Boarding Gate was aggressively marketed as a globetrotting thriller about a girl (Asia Argento) with a gun and a paucity of clothing. I haven’t seen Boarding Gate (yet), but Demonlover and Clean both felt like somewhat contrived exercises in arthouse empire-building.
After futzing around with rock stars and glossy filmmaking in quasi-genre mode, Assayas makes an assured return to the kind of rock-solid, low-key cinema on which reputations are built. Summer Hours is a wisp of a thing, a movie about what happens to a ritzy French family’s country home after the matriarch passes away, leaving three siblings to fuss over the estate. The characters are written so schematically that it seems a miracle the film works at all. Brother Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an academic who dreams of maintaining the house for his children and grandchildren while railing against modern economic thinkers. Brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) has been reassigned to China and hopes to use proceeds from a sale of the house to fund his relocation. And sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer living in the U.S. who declares that, frankly, the house doesn’t mean much to her anymore. In fact, France doesn’t mean much to her anymore.
In its apparent despair at what’s to become of local French culture in a globalized age, Summer Hours reads on paper like a conservative fusillade against the decay of Gallic tradition and, indeed, the subjugation of the French economy to the gigantic machine that is China, and the presumably corrosive cultural influence of the West. (Tout va bien, indeed.) What’s so delicate and absorbing is the way Assayas melds the personal and the political in a way that keeps those seams from showing. The performances, especially Edith Scob’s presence as the old woman who has a twinkle in her eyes in the presence of her children but sinks into ineluctable melancholy upon their departure, are fairly terrific, making the most of a generously crafted screenplay. These people are self-absorbed, yes, and clearly fixed on their own needs. But Assayas knows that doesn’t make them nefarious or unreasonable. Every family, and every culture, is made up of disparate people. They are who they are, and the tide of the family, and of the culture, will rise and fall according to their needs run in parallel or in subtle but unmistakably different directions.
The level of craft here is as formally dazzling as ever, with Assayas’ ever-moving camera helping turn the interiors of the house into a softly sold metaphor for the relationships and history shared by brothers and sister. (A scene late in the film set at the Musee d’Orsay, which commissioned this film as well as Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, with the apparent stipulation that one scene must take place inside the museum, makes the point even more incisively by divorcing artifact from atmosphere.) Ace cinematographer Eric Gautier turns tricks — like the blue-filter-means-I’m-sad thing — with such alacrity that you barely realize you’ve been seduced. Editor Luc Barnier works in a similar stealth mode, weaving together scenes with his usual keen awareness of the rhythms of the imagery, story and characters as well as the ebb and flow of the musical score.
At the end of the film, after bits of the estate have been parceled out but before the physical structure itself has been sold, a group of teenagers are invited to spend a weekend throwing one last party on the old property. It’s an obvious symbol of youth and vitality and hope for the future, but it’s given extra currency and meaning in the context of Assayas’ career. Summer Hours roars abruptly and conspicuously to life when one of the kids jacks in his MacBook and starts blasting rap music from the porch. By contrast, the touchstone image from the centerpiece party sequence of his 1994 growing-up-all-wrong classic Cold Water is a close-up of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record, which plays repeatedly. Cold Water is only 15 years old — given its soundtrack tunes by Dylan, Creedence, and Nico, you could argue it’s really quite a bit older than that — but in the context of technology and youth culture that feels like nearly a lifetime.
You can’t really call Summer Hours a comeback — Assayas has been here for years — but this breathtaking final-reel callback to his own early film clarifies his position. Assayas is neither a reactionary nor a pessimist. But that doesn’t keep him from being sad. And that’s the key — Summer Hours is a perfectly, magnificently sad film that dwells on the ravages of time while simultaneously celebrating rebirth. It’s not exactly an old man’s film, but its conclusion is unmistakable. The kids will take care of themselves.