Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: "Summer Hours"

The old guard passing the torch to the new has been a running theme in many films here as of late. It is a very timely and apt subject of course, and in Olivier Assayas' sublime new film, Summer Hours, the passage of time takes on a beautiful and poignant new resonance.

Family is the centerpiece of Assayas' tender and moving tale, but the family surname is never revealed. They could be any family, anywhere, at any time. But summer is winding down for this family, as Helene (Edith Scob), the family matriarch, suddenly passes away, leaving the handling of her estate to her three grown children, Adrienne, Jérémie, and Frédéric.

Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), is a designer living in New York, far away from the family home in the French countryside. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) is a businessman preparing to move to China with his family for an extended period of time. And Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an Economics professor in Paris, the only one of the children who stayed close to his roots.

Charles Berling as Frederic, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne and Dominique Reymond as Lisa in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release

With all three faced with pressing affairs in their own lives, and none of them able to stay in Paris to keep up the estate, the task of dividing up and auctioning off their childhood home must be done as quickly as possible. Helene's uncle was a renowned artist, and left a priceless collection at the estate, which makes it a very rare and important find. As appraisers and auctioneers descend on their home, each sibling is faced with a flood of childhood memories, and each must confront old wounds as they watch the last remnants of their past get scattered into the wind.

Despite its sad premise, Summer Hours is ultimately an uplifting, if bittersweet, experience. It is a film about growing up and moving on, told with maturity, tenderness, and assurance. As I said earlier, the family's surname is never revealed, which allows the audience to insert themselves into the narrative. They may not be a typical family, but they have their problems just like any other.

Jeremie Renier as Jeremie, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne and Charles Berling as Frederic in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release

And just like any other family, sometimes they lose sight of what is most important. Preoccupied with their own individual lives, the relics of the past seem almost trivial and unimportant. But as the film progresses, each begin to realize the profound effects their childhood had on who they are, and the void that will be left by the selling of their birthplace. In many ways, it resembles a less cynical A Christmas Tale, with much more likable characters. Unlike that film, however, Summer Hours is ultimately a positive film. Assayas masterfully portrays life's natural progression - the old eventually steps aside to make room for the new, and whole new generation moves in.

The catch is that the old guard, memorably and heartbreakingly embodied by the family's faithful, elderly maid, is often overlooked in the face of such newness. It's the double edged sword of progress, and Assayas knows it. It's what makes Summer Hours such a remarkable and moving film. With his incisive screenplay and stellar ensemble cast, Assayas reinforces the power of family and importance of remembering one's roots. Progress is inevitable, and even desirable, but the past is always there. Nostalgic without being sentimental, Summer Hours is a profound and affecting film that is both inspiring and unforgettable. And if it makes you want to go hug your mother, well then, so much the better.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SUMMER HOURS: Directed by Olivier Assayas; Stars Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob; Not Rated; In French with English subtitles.

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