looking happier than they often feel in ‘Summer Hours’
The premise that underlines Olivier Assayas’ film ‘Summer Hours’ couldn’t be more unfamiliar: elderly matriarch dies, her three adult children have to decide how to split up her estate, the Musee D’Orsay gets involved because said estate includes a lot of art and objets d’art, and some teenagers have a party in the rambling French country pile that has given the family shape for a generation. The end.
Given that I don’t have a) any objets d’art, b) a rambling French country pile, or c) contacts at the Musee D’Orsay, ‘Summer Hours’ nails what my old sociological colleagues would call ‘the condition of postmodernity’, and in that sense, ‘the condition of my life’ as if it were written about me. You might feel that way too, especially if you’re a middle class Westerner (in an ironic example of the limits of globalisation, that particular marker of non-diversity probably accounts for most of the readers of this blog, as well as the writer). ‘Summer Hours’ manages to make me think about be utterly compelling, to entertain and provoke, to suggest the contours of the world in which we currently live, and to suggest that its characters have existed before the film started, and will go on once it’s done. A film of moments, because it knows life’s biggest gravities often look tiny or even invisible when they’re happening. Trust me – as I look back over the past five years of my life, it seems to me entirely true that the most important thing I did was to spend fifteen minutes picking raspberries in New Zealand with my best friend. All the external ‘success’, money, ‘spectaculars’ that may have happened are easily filed away into ‘do not resuscitate’ – they won’t sustain me. To sustain me in a sense of well-being, peace, and the possibility that I might do less harm to those around me? Picking raspberries in a field in New Zealand. That’ll do.
(As for ‘Summer Hours’ moment of moments?: It’s a close call between the protagonist (who dies in the first quarter of an hour – and that’s not a spoiler) unpacking a new telephone, a 75th birthday gift that becomes something like the most heartbreaking metaphor you could imagine; or the way the camera lures itself up to Juliette Binoche’s face, and the sound rises as the camera closes in, and she weeps as her boyfriend leans toward her offering the relational closeness that the film is grieving.)
It’s a film about what drives the world, what family is, the role of art in living well, what the past means, the interconnection and fragmentation of the things; it creates a fully realised setting that I felt I could watch forever, partly because the way of life it is describing is itself becoming a museum piece.
Criterion releases ‘Summer Hours’ on DVD and Blu-Ray next week – gorgeous transfers as usual, and a pretty decent long interview with Assayas accompanies an essay by Kent Jones and making of documentary. It’s a magnificent film – one of the best of the past few years.