Review: Summer Hours

Summer Hours, directed by Olivier Assayas (2009, in French, with English subtitles), viewed at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on July 10, 2009.

I found Summer Hours to be very engaging — not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps, but for me an extremely compelling film. It is touching without being overly sentimental. With an almost objective directness it simply lays out an important aspect of human existence: no special effects, no drama. It is visually stunning again and again, and the pacing is perfect. The characters seem quite real — no villains or heroes, just ordinary people struggling to deal with an ordinary problem. And the acting is flawless (especially Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Edith Scob).

Summer Hours is about inevitable, irrecoverable loss. It opens in summertime as Helene celebrates her 75th birthday, surrounded by her family at her lovely, slightly dilapidated home in a small village outside Paris. She is also surrounded by museum-quality objets d’art, most collected by her late uncle, a famous painter (and sometime lover, perhaps?). She is personally invested in each item, as everything evokes memories and feelings unsharable with her children and grandchildren — while in the background hovers the prospect of her own death, tinged by her realization that the meanings these objects have for her are not inherent in the things themselves and so will surely die with her.

And with her eventual death comes the need either to preserve or dispose of the house and its contents, a challenge to which her three children bring diverging perspectives. The narrative arc of the film, such as it is, takes us through this painful task.

It’s a sad but not depressing film that illuminates a sadness intrinsic to all human existence: finally, the rich fullness of our lives, expressed and memorialized in the spaces we inhabit, the things with which we adorn and personalize these spaces, and the artifacts we rely on in living out our days, inexorably recedes into oblivion.

The film ends with another summer party at the same venue, this time hosted by the teenage grandchildren. It feels at first like a desecration, a brutal, edgy exclamation point on the theme of loss. Yet the final scene is also a glimpse of life’s richness reemerging, as though its persistence is as inevitable as its irrecoverable passing.

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