Place And The Past, Evanescing In 'Summer Hours'

W Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in 'Summer Hours' i i

The world spins forward: An artist's family (Jeremie Renier, left, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling) grapples with issues of personal and cultural inheritance in the age of globalization. Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films
W Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in 'Summer Hours'

The world spins forward: An artist's family (Jeremie Renier, left, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling) grapples with issues of personal and cultural inheritance in the age of globalization.

Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films

Summer Hours

  • Director: Olivier Assayas
  • Genre: Foreign
  • Running Time: 99 minutes

Unrated

With: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier, Edith Scob

(Recommended)

Summer Hours opens on a note of joie de vivre so palpably lovely — and so singularly Gallic — that you can smell the croissants baking in the oven.

A pack of mirthful children and two happy dogs scamper in the bright green leaf of the countryside. One child climbs a tree; they're on a treasure hunt. A blank piece of paper is retrieved from its branches. A map! Invisible ink!

This being France, someone nearby is smoking, so a lighter is fetched and applied to the paper. The object they seek is revealed.

This limpid little set piece, the first in a sustained sequence of perfectly wrought scenes and moments, proves deceptively casual. The relationship of people to objects, and the shift in those dynamics from generation to generation, is the subject of this drama, a triumph of perception and thematic brilliance by the great writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clean).

While the children frolic, the adults relax in the shade, sipping wine and waiting for Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), a sturdy domestic straight out of a 19th century novel, to finish lunch. They raise a glass to their mother Helene (Edith Scob) in honor of her 75th birthday.

Frederic (Charles Berling) is the eldest, a renowned economist and author; sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a product designer living in New York. Their younger brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) works for the sportswear outfit Puma in Shanghai.

They are, in short, a collection of paradigmatic contemporary bourgeois, dispersed from France by the winds of globalization yet tethered still to tradition.

And tradition weighs heavily on this ultra-modern family. The country house belonged to their uncle, a celebrated painter dead for some years, whose professional legacy — a catalogue raisonne has just been published; a traveling retrospective is in the works — is managed by Helene.

And so the matriarch's thoughts have turned to the future, and to the burden of the past. She pulls Frederic aside to discuss the fate of her brother's estate, the house and its treasure trove of art and objects: a pair of Corots, decorative panels by Redon, choice examples of Art Deco and Viennese Modernism, a broken plaster by Degas.

Charles Berling and Dominique Reymond in 'Summer Hours' i i

Elegant introspection: Dominique Reymond (with Charles Berling) helps round out a perfect cast in a beautifully made film. Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films
Charles Berling and Dominique Reymond in 'Summer Hours'

Elegant introspection: Dominique Reymond (with Charles Berling) helps round out a perfect cast in a beautifully made film.

Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films

Helene urges Frederic to sell it all and divide the profit between her three children. She knows what he resists acknowledging: that an era for the family, and for France, has ended.

Offering all the pleasures of the polished ensemble picture — crisp talk, suave acting, mise-en-scene of effortless sophistication — Summer Hours is a singularly perceptive take on a French genre as traditional as the nature morte. As Assayas chronicles the bittersweet negotiations regarding the family inheritance, he considers as well the soul of France itself.

Summer Hours is the most elegant movie imaginable about the changes wrought by globalization, a theme Assayas has tackled in more explicit (and lurid) terms in such outre thrillers as Demonlover and Boarding Gate. His latest is one of his best — a sharp, effervescent movie, rich and careful as an expert novella.

Assayas is celebrated for his roving, mobile camerawork. Here, working with the superb cinematographer Eric Gautier, he flits and glides through his scenes, acutely responsive to the psychological currents in the air. There isn't a single ostentatious shot in Summer Hours — you can slip into the narrative stream with perfect ease — nor one that isn't, in its quiet way, a tour de force. (Recommended)

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