Summer Hours (L'Heure d'ete) (France, 2008)

May 06, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Summer Hours (L'Heure d'ete) Poster

Summer Hours is about death, but not death in the way that it is often packaged and sold to us in movies. Defining grief is a difficult thing. Why do we mourn? Do we grieve for the person who has died or for the ones he (or she) has left behind? Or is there something deeper to it? Do we perhaps feel a sense of loss that there will be no new memories of this person to reside in our thoughts alongside those that have long since taken root? These are ideas filmmaker Olivier Assayas explores with Summer Hours, a picture that examines the repercussions of death with almost clinical precision. He does not manipulate; there is no melodrama. However, by employing such exactingness, he permits us to consider how the experiences of his characters mirror our thoughts and actions in similar circumstances. These are not superheroes doing unusual things; these are men and women working through seemingly mundane matters. Nothing much happens during the course of Summer Hours, and it will bore some viewers to distraction, but those who relate to what Assayas is attempting to do will come away from the experience in a contemplative mood.

The plot is as minimal is one can get. A family - consisting of adult children Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and assorted grandchildren - gather at the longtime home of matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) to celebrate her 75th birthday. She doesn't live long enough to see 76. In less than a year, Hélène has died and her children are left to divide her considerable assets (her uncle was a famous painter and art collector). This process is presented in detail. Frédéric would like to keep the house and some of the possessions, but he lacks the money to buy out his siblings and, since they live abroad (Adrienne in New York and Jérémie in Japan), they have no desire to retain ownership.

For Frédéric, who holds a romanticized notion of his mother's house, losing the property as well as the woman who inhabited it is a tremendous blow. It forces him to become reconciled to an immutable fact of life: the status quo is largely an illusion. His fondest hopes (expressed to Héléne before her death) are that the house can stay in the family so his children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy summer vacations there as he and his siblings once did. What he has not understood, however, is that retaining ownership of the house means little. The memories are the same regardless of whether he owns the place or not, and the changes in times and attitudes mean that the setting in which those memories were created has passed as surely as his mother has died. Assayas underscores this point in the movie's final scene, which illustrates that a "summer holiday" for today's youth is not the same as it once was.

There's a telling symmetry in the way Summer Hours is structured. It begins and ends in the same physical location but, even though only a year of physical time has passed, the gap is one of a generation. Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), Frédéric's teenage daughter, is the constant. At the beginning of the film, she is living in the fragile, idealized world that her father holds dear. At the end, freed from the constraining presence of her parents and grandmother, she acts as one might expect a girl of her age to act. She represents the exclamation point at the end of Assayas' commentary.

It goes without saying that Summer Hours is talky and therefore satisfies stereotypes of what constitutes a French film. The dialogue lacks the compelling quality of Eric Rohmer, but is interesting for a different reason. The conversations represent the kind of logical, down-to-Earth discussions people in this situation might have. Under normal circumstances, it can be a trying and sometimes contentious act to divide the property of a deceased relative. Here, there are added complications: two of the beneficiaries are leaving the country and many of the possessions are valuable. Estate tax issues must be resolved and some of the furniture and artwork will be donated to a museum. There's a poignant (yet not overdone) scene late in the film where Frédéric and his wife see Héléne's desk on display, and he remarks that it looks "caged." It is no longer his; it is now available for public viewing but, for the most part, the passing individuals don't care. It's just another seemingly unremarkable object in a collection.

Summer Hours attracted two of France's acting luminaries, and their presence elevates the material. Charles Berling has the central role; the movie is largely told from his perspective. Juliette Binoche, with blonde hair, has a secondary part. Also noteworthy is that Kyle Eastwood (the son of Clint and brother of Alison) has a small part as Adrienne's younger American boyfriend. Assayas is a big enough figure in international cinema to be able to attract significant names, like Binoche, even when their parts are not especially demanding.

The title is entirely appropriate because it evokes the kind of pleasant memories that form the foundation of Frédéric's longing. It's easy to see how some viewers will find Summer Hours an uninvolving experience. Emotionally, it's a little chilly, and the kind of intellectual investment it seeks to stimulate will work only with some viewers (those who have suffered a recent loss will relate more intimately that those who have not). Anyone who discovers more to this movie than "much talk and little action" will develop a rapport with the characters. They are reflections of us, and therein lies their ability to compel attention.

Summer Hours (L'Heure d'ete) (France, 2008)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-01
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1