In 'Summer Hours,' A Handsome View Of The Tomb

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Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in 'Summer Hours' i

Tending to the past: Summer Hours stars Juliet Binoche, Charles Berling (left) and Jeremie Renier. Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films hide caption

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

Tending to the past: Summer Hours stars Juliet Binoche, Charles Berling (left) and Jeremie Renier.

Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films

Summer Hours

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

Unrated

(Recommended)

Masterpieces make their own rules, and it's hard to think of a work I can compare to Olivier Assayas's hauntingly beautiful film Summer Hours. It centers on works of art, yet it's the least arty film imaginable.

The first third belongs to the time-honored genre of the country-house family reunion. We're on a large, not-fancy estate outside Paris on the birthday of a 75-year-old widow named Helene, who inherited the place from her uncle, a famous artist and collector. She was devoted to him, and after his death, to his legacy.

Now, Helene (Edith Scob) knows her own time is short. She welcomes her three grown children and their families for their annual summer gathering, then quietly raises a question with the eldest, Frederic, an academic played by Charles Berling: What will happen to the house, the grounds, the paintings, the glassware, the hand-etched silver, the furnishings?

It's all valuable — yet the works of art are displayed simply, without fuss, the priceless vases holding flowers. This estate is more than the sum of its individual parts; it represents an enduring culture that is meant to be woven through one's life, not immured in a museum, removed from it.

The rest of the film, about an hour, is tightly focused; it centers on whether and how the estate should be broken up. Frederic assumes it won't be, that it will stay in the family for his children and their children.

But his sister Adrienne (Juliet Binoche) has long since abandoned France, living in New York with her American boyfriend. And their younger brother, Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), has relocated his business to China. Yes, say Adrienne and Jeremie, it would be sad to give up the estate and sell off the collection, but that life is past — and they need money for the present.

An obvious comparison is to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which dramatizes the harsh coming of a new social order and the passing of one that's lovely but fundamentally useless. Underneath the mundane surface of Summer Hours, momentous forces can be felt: globalization, the slow disintegration of old Europe, the triumph of economics over art.

But the atmosphere isn't Chekhovian. The film is plain, tactile, nuts-and-bolts. In come the assessors and appraisers and auctioneers. How much will this armoire go for? Should this pair of Cortots be broken up? Should we give these notebooks to Christie's in the U.S.? How much of an estate-tax credit will a gift to this museum bring?

As each object is appraised, another piece of Frederic's inner world dies — and Berling suggests a man wracked by the fear of floating away along with his past.

In the last decade, Assayas has made a slew of extroverted, erotic, sensationalistic dramas and thrillers like Demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate in which his subjects seemed caught on the fly and his camera fetishized everyone.

In its tempo and volume, Summer Hours is a world apart, and yet it shares its predecessors' openness. His touch in Summer Hours is relaxed but supremely alert, his framing loose yet vivid, his actors so good you never catch them emoting.

Binoche, the least actressy of great actresses, shows Adrienne's restiveness by indirection, by never seeming rooted in the moment. Her scenes with Edith Scob as her mother are uncanny. In the room where her uncle died, Helene holds up his final sketch, of the window and curtains — holds it up against that very window and curtains to show the connection between life lived and life preserved by the artist.

It's no accident that Scob is best known for the most lyrical of all horror films, Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, where she played a mute, melancholy, disfigured beauty whose skin grafts are at first wondrous and then begin to rot.

That face, aged but still lovely, carries a whiff of the tomb— that inexplicable awareness of decay in the summeriest of hours that's at the core of this great film.

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