Summer Hours

Summer Hours

***1/2

Reviewed by: George Williamson

Somewhat appropriately we open with a treasure hunt; children are charging around the garden, making a noisy mess and generally upsetting each other on their search for the prize.

The sudden death of the family matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) leaves her children with the painful dissection of her home, personal belongings and the last of the art collection of her Uncle Paul, a famous artist who died leaving her many valuable heirlooms. Tension between the three grown up siblings is palpable as they realise that their lives and desires have diverged completely; they all retain fond memories of a childhood centered on visits to the house, but they all have completely different needs.

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The eldest brother, Frédéric (Charles Berling) wants to keep everything in the family, maintaining the abode as a memorial to Hélène and Paul, preserving the family heritage. The youngest brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) is just starting a lucrative career in China and needs to relocate to Beijing, so wants to sell all of the valuables to pay for it. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is the middle child - she knows that she'll never use the house, but as a successful designer she'll also not need the money from its sale. From this unfolds a complex story about the way we perceive sentiment and memory; the importance of people and places as parts of our past.

The setup for Summer Hours may sound somewhat clinical - the three siblings are given very different characters in order to better facilitate the central themes; Frédéric is the sentimentalist, Jérémie the capitalist and Adrienne the realist. Through their behaviors Olivier Assayas is able to examine the internal turmoil felt when trading off between nostalgic attachment and financial gain. There are no real explicit conclusions drawn, but a melancholy air pervades - suggesting that this may be a broader metaphor relating to a global situation where capitalism has been allowed to overrule humanity all too often at the cost of happiness. But this is only one interpretation, Assayas is more concerned with presenting an interesting question than with preaching any single answer.

Fortunately, excellent performances from the cast mean that the film doesn't dryly sacrifice plausibility in order to present its arguments. Juliette Binoche is as good as ever, but Charles Berling steals the show as the tortured older brother, watching his children's legacy being dismantled and sold to various museums. In addition collaboration with the Musee d'Orsay means that the art in the film is genuine, adding an extra level of fidelity. This is a superior middle class drama; not as grittily realistic as the working class films of the Dardenne brothers and less whimsical than the films of Patrice Leconte or François Ozon, but equally rewarding.

Superficially Summer Hours is an examination of the emotional fallout from the death of a loved mother, but digging deeper reveals insightful comment on nostalgia, mortality, property and family.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2008
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Drama about a priceless art collection and a family's decision about how best to use it, for both memory and intrinsic worth.
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