City Paper is not for tourists
Some of us spent our infancies sneaking Oreos and breaking windows with a baseball; Frédéric Marly (Charles Berling) spent his sneaking langues de chat and accidentally shattering original plasters of Dégas dancers. Such is life for the children of France’s artiste élite in writer-director Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours. Commissioned by the Musée D’Orsay as one of a slate of films to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary, Summer Hours grounds a tale of artistic dynasty in the slender, poignant quotidian life of its heirs. At the film’s opening, Frédéric’s mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), gathers her three children at the family estate to celebrate her 75th birthday and to confront the question of what will happen to a lifetime’s accumulation of art—what she calls “the residue”—once she dies. The house is a monument to the work and collecting habits of impressionist painter Paul Berthier, Hélène’s uncle and, we discover, her lover. With her daughter, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), ensconced in the design world of New York City and her younger son, Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), working as a sales exec for Puma in China, Hélène tells Frédéric that the estate will be his responsibility. Preservationally inclined by virtue of being the eldest son, Frédéric lobbies his globalized siblings after their mother’s death, entreating them not to sell the house and the vaunted pieces that fill it (the Musée D’Orsay has its eye on a set of Viennese modernist vases and an art noveau writing desk designed by Louis Majorelle). Two paintings by Corot have a special hold on Frédéric’s memory and imagination, though not on his teenage children’s: When he tells his son and daughter that one day the paintings will be theirs, they nod with abstracted appreciation but remind him that the paintings represent “another era.” The film’s being touted as a paean to France’s increasingly diffuse cultural identity and a meditation on globalization—not for nothing do Adrienne and Jeremie wish to leave their birthright for America and the Far East, respectively—and Frédéric’s own confused relation to his recent book (in which he argues that modern economics has become a superstition) brings these preoccupations to the fore. The real thrust of the film, though, is how life inheres in, and dispenses with, its overvalued physical trappings: In one of the most touching moments, Frédéric tells the ancient housekeeper Éloise to choose an item from the house as a gift; ignorant of its worth, she picks one of those Viennese vases, which she fills with flowers in memory of Hélène. In this way, the film subordinates explicit preservationist or iconoclastic touches to a delicately wrought family narrative, which chronicles without lament the passing of one generation and the forgetful rise of the next.