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.”