Every now and then a film comes along that looks and sounds like poetry—simple, beautiful, profound. Olivier Assayas’ 2008 film, Summer Hours, is such a film. Those who enjoyed it during its theatrical run (which was limited and brief in North America) will be delighted to know that Summer Hours is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by the well-known film aficionados at The Criterion Collection. It’s unlikely that this film will find a large audience in America during its DVD “afterlife,” and that’s a real shame since its themes revolve around how generations within families view the past and how they relate to the objects of the past and to one another, which is something families in America deal with each day.
Part of the reason that Summer Hours is unlikely to attract the masses at the video store is because, frankly, not a lot happens in it. But it’s the breezy, natural manner in which the events unfold that lend an air of simplicity and approachability to the film.
The film opens with three adult children—Adrienne (Juliete Binoche), Frédéric (Charles Berling), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—gathering at their mother’s large country estate in France to celebrate her 75th birthday. The mother, Hélène (Edith Scob) is thinking of her death in the midst of her birthday and she pulls Frédéric aside to explain how she wants the various items in the house split up after she’s gone.
Making things more complicated is the fact that the estate—as well as many of its artifacts—once belonged to Hélène’s uncle, who was a famous French artist, and with whom she may have had an affair (one of several strands of back story that the film wisely leaves dangling). Which items should be sold to art dealers and which should be kept in the family? This question is one with which Hélène’s three children will have to deal during the course of the film.
Initially, Frédéric—the eldest and the only one of the children to remain in France—believes that the house and its contents will remain in the family and be passed down to the next generation. Upon Hélène’s death fairly early in the film, Adrienne, who lives in New York, and Jérémie, who lives in China, admit that they have little desire to keep the house in the family, and as Jérémie puts it, he “needs the money.”
The rest of the film focuses on their efforts to go through the contents of the house, dividing, keeping, and selling. As the film moves along, its focus gently narrows to Frédéric and his two children, one of whom, by film’s end, seems to realize that something important is in danger of being lost with the selling of the family estate.
Assayas effectively considers how people within one family can differ on their views of the past and the objects connected to it by showing us three generations of one family. This is somewhat painfully displayed in a scene in which Frédéric beams with pride as he shows his two teenage children two rare Corot paintings. “One day they’ll be yours and your cousins'. You’ll pass them on to your kids. Like them?” he asks. To which his children reply, “They’re okay… it’s another era.” By the film’s end, the paintings are sold.
One of the most poetic aspects of the film is its elliptical storytelling. It is a common occurrence in Summer Hours for the screen to fade to black and fade back in several months later, with no title card indicating a passage of time. Assayas does provide the audience with clues about the passage of time. In one scene we find that Frédéric has grown a beard and Adrienne has adopted a new hairstyle. A few scenes later, Frédéric’s beard is gone and the weather has changed. This almost episodic method of storytelling not only shows respect for the intelligence of the audience, it gives the film a brisk pace, reminding the audience how quickly time passes in real life.
Ultimately, Summer Hours is a film about how families pass down memories, but it’s also a film about death, art, life, and the meaning we ascribe to objects. Is an object in my home valuable because an art dealer says it is or because of the memories I have associated with it? Isn’t it better for an important work of art to be in a museum for all to enjoy rather than the dusty attic of some family estate? This question is raised near the film’s end as Frédéric goes to an art gallery to see a desk and a vase from his mother’s house on display. A crowd walks by, some notice, some don’t even look, and one man takes a call on his cell phone.
Assayas masterfully treats these themes with a story that contains the simplicity and profundity of a parable. And like many parables, the film ends perfectly, but ambiguously, inviting the viewer to ponder and make sense of what she has just seen. The ideas and beautiful images of this quiet, thoughtful film are certain to remain with viewers for some time.
As previously stated, this two-disc, director-approved DVD edition of Summer Hours comes to us courtesy of the good folks at The Criterion Collection and so it has many features worth noting. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a beautiful, high definition digital transfer. This transfer was overseen and approved by director Olivier Assayas and the film’s legendary cinematographer, Eric Gautier.
Also featured here are a few documentaries on the second disc including an interview with Assayas, a making-of documentary, and an hour-long documentary by Olivier Gonard titled Inventory in which the film’s approach to art is considered. Finally, there is an improved English subtitle translation for the film and a booklet which features some beautiful, on-set photographs and an essay by Kent Jones. Perhaps the only thing missing is an audio commentary for the film. But the inclusion of the interview footage and the nature of the film itself make this a minor quibble.