Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Assayas’s Summer Hours

French death taxes are a killer. They force the Berthier family to sell off their country home and the tasteful fine art collection it housed following the death of their beloved mother. Yet, their estate sale has much deeper meaning than the mere liquidation of assets in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hélène Berthier’s far-flung family has reunited for what will be her final birthday. Since the death of her husband, she has dedicated herself to preserving the memory of her uncle Paul, a highly regarded artist, and his valuable art collection, largely acquired from colleagues early in their careers. However, she harbors no illusions about its fate once she passes on. It is the eldest brother Frédéric who has trouble emotionally letting go of the family legacy, particularly two Corot landscapes, despite the harsh financial realities of French estate taxes.

Evidently, his siblings do not seem to share his sentimental attachments. After all, they hardly see the place. Sister Adrienne lives in New York with her younger boyfriend (played by jazz musician Kyle Eastwood, son of director Clint), while brother Jéremié will soon be moving to China to manage a sweatshop. The sale of the Berthier assets exposes the radically different ideals of the siblings. In fact, without their mother and the country house to come home to, their future cohesion as a family is possibly in doubt.

With its atmosphere of elegant fatalism, Sumimer Hours is a quintessentially French film. It is also directly connected to the French artistic tradition it honors. It is one of two feature films that developed out of a proposed series of shorts that would have been produced to celebrate the Musée D’Orsay’s twentieth anniversary. While the original project failed to materialize, the museum supported Summer Hours, supplying works from their collection and allowing Assayas to film throughout their premises. Appropriately, Eric Gauthier’s vibrant cinematography shows the Berthier collection and the surrounding countryside in a bright, sparkling light that emphasizes their beauty.

Summer Hours is wistfully elegiac, but not tragic. This is not King Lear. Family differences are settled as best they can be amongst mature adults who really do care about each other. They clearly have years of history together, which the three central actors do a nice job of evoking. Juliette Binoche is a smart, luminous presence as Adrienne. (Notably, she also co-starred in the previous film to evolve out of the Musée D’Orsay project, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s lovely Flight of the Red Balloon.) Jéremié Renier is also quite credible as the underachieving brother Jéremié. However, frequent Assayas collaborator Charles Berling’s finely nuanced performance supplies the film’s soul as Frédéric, the sentimental intellectual, struggling with an array of disappointments in life.

Assayas’s Summer Hours is an artfully crafted, subtly rewarding film, with many legitimately touching moments. It might sound deceptively small in scope, but themes like the value of family and the permanence of art are pretty deep and universal. It opens in New York on Friday (5/15) at the IFC Film Center.