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SUMMER HOURS (L’heure d’été) (director/writer: Olivier Assayas; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editor: Luc Barnier; cast: Juliette Binoche (Adrienne), Charles Berling (Frédéric), Jérémie Renier (Jérémie), Edith Scob (Hélène), Dominique Reymond (Lisa), Valérie Bonneton (Angela), Isabelle Sadoyan (Éloïse), Alice de Lencquesaing (Sylvie), Emile Berling (Pierre), Kyle Eastwood (James); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Charles Gillibert/Marin and Nathanaël Karmitz; IFC Films; 2008-France-in French with English subtitles)
“A subdued, chatty and poignant family drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A subdued, chatty and poignant family drama, that’s about children letting go of childhood memories with the death of their mother and also the changing attitude of the passing generations. With the loss of certain cultural values for both the new generation and for France in the new globalization, it’s a film that seems justifiably concerned about the cultural future of France. It opens with an idyllic scene of happy children on a treasure hunt in the country and ends on a bittersweet note with a raucous integrated teenage rap music/pot smoking send-off gathering on the treasured estate just sold.

Prolific 54-year-old writer-director Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep”/”Boarding Gate”/”Demonlover”) lets on with a sigh or two of how he feels that change is inevitable–that is the way life goes and cannot be stopped. His only hope is that somehow the valuable cultural gifts from France’s rich past can still be protected in all the sweeping changes, as he points to a disintegration of both cultural and societal values and is cautiously hopeful that all won’t be lost in the new homogenized France.

The film was commissioned as a part of a four film series that is a celebration of the Musée d’Orsay’s 20th anniversary.

There’s a family reunion at the country cottage, just outside of Paris, in the summer, for the chic and still spry French family matriarch named Hélène (Edith Scob), on the widow’s 75th birthday. Attending are her three fortysomething children, who grew up in this house. The oldest being the married with two children university economics professor in Paris named Frédéric (Charles Berling), the younger brother is the married with children business manager of a Puma sneaker factory in China named Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and the middle child is a childless divorcee who is a successful New York-based designer named Adienne (Juliette Binoche). Also visiting are Hélène’s playful grandchildren.

The controlling Hélène makes plans with Frédéric, the only child living in France, of what to do with the estate when she dies. She’s collected her late-uncle’s exceptional 19th century art collection that includes valuable paintings by Corot and Redon, plus some highly valued antiques, a Majorelle desk and other rare furnishings. Her beloved uncle was a celebrated painter, someone she respected more than her businessman husband. Mom realizes that the children are on divergent paths, but wants Frédéric to be aware how much the house and art objects are worth if they must sell this inheritance. The house stands for a metaphor about France, and the intelligent collection represents what the new generation no longer values or understands. When Hélène suddenly dies a year or so later, only Frédéric wishes to retain the possessions but the other two vote to sell everything as they no longer live in or care that much about France.

Assayas is at his best chronicling the interactions between the various family members, which he accomplishes with much subtlety and tact. It’s a quiet lyrical film that thrives on being fluent, intelligent and delicately textured. It lets us know that what we value is different for each individual, as the faithful housekeeper (Isabelle Sadoyan) is offered any object in the house as a parting gift by the oldest son and chooses a vase because she doesn’t think it’s valuable and will find sentimental uses for it as it will remind her of Hélène when she puts flowers in it. Interestingly enough, the other two valuable vases are donated as a tax write off to the Musée d’Orsay, where they are on display for the public–showing that the same Viennese vase valued in the museum as a work of art can be useful in a home that cherishes it.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”