Summer Hours: Interview with Director Olivier Assayas

Winner of Best Foeign Film by L.A. Film Critics

The divergent paths of three forty-something siblings collide when their mother, heiress to her uncle’s exceptional 19th century art collection, dies. Left to come to terms with themselves and their differences, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a successful New York designer, Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist and university professor in Paris, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a dynamic businessman in China, confront the end of childhood, their shared memories, background and unique vision of the future.

Interview with Olivier Assayas
The script of your film was inspired by an initiative from the Musée d’Orsay. Was this a constraint during the writing process?
Not at all. In the beginning, there was the desire of the Musée d’Orsay to associate cinema with the celebrations of its twentieth birthday by offering carte blanche to four directors from very different backgrounds. These four short films were intended to be brought together in one film. For technical reasons, the project had to be abandoned. What remained was the initial spark that inspired my friend Hou Hsiao Hsien and me: the characters, a framework that was too big for a short film from the outset and which, once the film moved away from its initial context, became completely independent. For me, the relationship between the work and the museum and between the museum-goer and the displayed objects was the foundation. This determined my personal exploration of a universal theme. Many other layers were applied later, following the same process of creation as every one of my films.
Your family drama has a Chekhovian feel. Are you a literary director?
I have always been interested in the structure of the novel. But literary often refers to the 19th century, to the classical novel, whereas I’ve also been affected by contemporary literature. My relation to film writing is more literary than scenarist. And from this perspective, I have no problem with being literary. I really admire Chekhov. I’m tempted to say: like everybody else. When we were shooting, I’d sometimes say jokingly to the actors that our film was a distant echo of THE CHERRY ORCHARD even though I haven’t seen the play performed in a long time…
You have again brought three generations together on screen, after your family saga Les Destinees. What interests you in this motif of the family?
Everyone has his own relationship with family and in one way or another, knows its internal dynamics. As a result, it can easily be transposed to another context and remain real. Even if my relations with my family aren’t those of the film, there are inevitable autobiographical echoes. The reaction it triggered in each actor is another case in point. There’s the film I wrote and the film we made. I let the actors invent their characters, comprised of their own experiences. When we’re dealing with a simple, universal subject, everyone has something authentic to contribute. Furthermore, I feel that I’d never really made a film about family before SUMMER HOURS. LES DESTINEES was a period film adapted from a book by Jacques Chardonne. It is more his world than mine, more his era than ours. With SUMMER HOURS, I was able to speak about the relations between brothers and sisters, in the present.
SUMMER HOURS is situated in a less globalist vein than your recent films. Why return to a more intimate story at this particular moment in your career?
This film comes after a trilogy which hadn’t been conceived as such, structured around the notion of internationalized society. With DEMONLOVER, CLEAN and BOARDING GATE I wanted to tell stories about the world today, where cultures and languages mix, where the movement of people is determined – as it has always been – by the movement of merchandise and money. I had no idea this would distance me so much from my original thematic and the established values of French cinema. I’ve wanted to come back home for a while, even if I may leave again afterwards. This is why I immediately accepted the Musée d’Orsay project. It was an opportunity to bring me back to the subject of my past, my history and my roots. I wrote it at a time when I realized that my mother would not live forever. She died last year. So I was forced to rethink the film, which had taken on overwhelming significance for me.
Globalization is in Jérémie and Adrienne’s professions that take them abroad.
Certainly. Yet I see a difference between the career of an artist like Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), who no longer thinks about geographical borders, and that of her brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who is part of a movement, part of the history of modern economy – the very economy that Frédéric (Charles Berling) does not believe in. In Europe, there is a lot of abdication among technical/sales executives who identify with Anglo-Saxon free-market culture and its values, learned interchangeably in French or American business schools. These modern executives, the lower to middle ranks of today’s bourgeoisie, are often the most active players in society. They scorn their own
history and, deep down, their own identity. I’m very skeptical about this development, which seems wrong to me. I wanted to tell the story of a family that has roots in the past but with ramifications in the present. What happens when one generation takes over from another? Globalization is as much a human as economic phenomenon, which
implicates transformations in the social existence of individuals. In most branches of contemporary industry, an executive will have to deal with the issue of being relocated, to wherever his profession has been displaced, according to the new circulation of knowledge and skills. This has consequences in terms of transmission, history and identity. Ancient or traditional forms of the family are transfiguring. It is no longer a question of fighting to possess family heritage, but rather knowing how to get rid of it. How does this past, which no longer represents much, all of a sudden jump on us from behind? What do we do with it? What interests me in the movie is not so much the material value of things, but their symbolic value.
Is the family home, in its permanence, one of the film’s characters?
I know it’s not very original, but I’m convinced that places have souls. The house materializes the link between the characters and, in a way, what gets lost among them is this link. Generation after generation, something has been left in this house, layer by layer, stratus by stratus. When it’s gone, everything that united the characters comes undone, disappears, becomes a void. The house is at the heart of the film, as a material place and one invested in the flux of identity.
This is your third film with Charles Berling. What do you appreciate most about him?
Relationships are the most precious things to me with actors. I’d say the same about everyone who worked on the film. That’s where all exchange begins. It is important to me that the actors absorb what the character and story are telling, above all by appropriating it, making it resound with their own individual sensibility. I have wanted to work with Charles Berling at different moments in my career. He has a rather unique capacity for transforming himself, exploring in cinema and theater the multiple facets of his personality: it is also, I think, in this manner that I approach film writing.
We get the impression that he is sort of your alter ego in this film.
I’m forced to confront this question after three films together! Of course, in SUMMER HOURS, Charles Berling is the spokesman for my own questioning. As it is often the case with my films, there’s a bit of me in all of them, dosed randomly. In this film there’s some of me in Frédéric but also in Adrienne and others too.
You’re a director of movement. Yet your film is about memory, which is often considered fixed.
I have no sense of nostalgia and I even feel uncomfortable with this question. I wanted to make a film about transmission, the past and the way that things occur in a flux, which is the movement of life. I manage to overcome that which pulls me backwards, like the legitimate sentimental attachment to a place or a history. But the flow of life, which brings change, is much stronger, truer and deeper than the melancholy you feel by looking to the past.
Seriousness catches up with the teenager in the last part of the film.
Teenagers are caught up in a state of becoming, with irresistible force. But at the same time they are attached to the shell in which they grew up. They are always very perturbed when the reference points that seemed unchanging suddenly move. They are saddened by the loss of this family home. Their memory will be more alive because it is
transmitted in an unformulated, organic way. They didn’t have the time to think it out, to feel the weight…
Your films also seem to have followed a cycle and Summer Hours brings together all your themes.
What is new for me, in this film, is that I’m with both the adults and the teenagers in a way that seems indistinguishable to me. I don’t know whether SUMMER HOURS is a summing up of everything that preceded it, but it does recapitulate a lot of things at a moment when I felt the need to do so. Likewise DISORDER, my first film, was a sort of
matrix, an intimate self-portrait of that time in my life: it represented everything I knew about the world up to that point. And where there is intimacy, there is universality.
In LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER, your characters didn’t seem to want to close off the world of possibilities. In SUMMER HOURS they have grown up and must face the inevitable
My characters have no choice but to become adults. The previous generation has gone. They are not shielded from time or maturity anymore. In fact they’re right in the firing line. SUMMER HOURS addresses this. My protagonists are no longer happy to just be in the present or to inventory the past. They ask themselves a new question: what they will leave behind? This time it was very clear to me that I wanted to return to a certain lightness, a spontaneity, and ease that I felt while making LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER, which was a happy time for me, possibly because I felt it was vulnerable and perishable. I knew that afterwards I had to make LES DESTINEES, a heavy and complicated production. It was like setting out to climb Mount Everest. Since then I’ve regretted what I left behind and I’ve wanted to come back to it. SUMMER HOURS gave me this opportunity.
SUMMER HOURS espouses the rhythms and tonalities of the seasons. How did you achieve this?
Cinematographically, each chapter of the film imposed its own style. When we’re with Hélène (Edith Scob), things are grounded. In the first part, I tried, as much as possible, to capture the family interacting together, swathed in light, with all the generations together. Afterwards, each person cuts himself off. There is no more of that life centered on a family. Children and nature are gone. We’re with the adults. We’ve left a sensual world for one that grows harder and darker. When the teenagers come to the fore, seasons have passed. It is springtime again. I adapt to their rhythm, using long shots with a hand-held camera that were absent from the rest of the film. We follow their movement, their running about, their joy. The group and the house blend together in a pure choreography that takes its time.
The objects of the family legacy are charged with emotion. They have a friendly presence in the house. But they become static, exposed to everyone in the museum, almost captives.
I wanted to talk about how art is born from life and gets embalmed in museums. I like museums but the pieces in them are in a zoo. When they are made, they live, breathe and exist with the world. The museum takes their light away. Using the Decorative Arts allowed me to highlight this. A chair or an armoire are made to participate in the lives of human beings. On display, they lose their meaning and their truth. I experienced first-hand the anecdote Frédéric tells of his visit to a private collection with a painter. I was with Francesco Clemente, one of the great contemporary artists, whom I admire very much. The artworks were held in a sort of sinister vault-apartment in Switzerland. He was horrified to find one of his own works there. Today painting has lost a lot of its soul in a frenzied relation to money.
Isn’t it a metaphor for France, which can be seen like a museum?
There’s something stiff about Europe, something fixed, its reluctance to participate in the movement of the world. Nevertheless, the French are interested in the world – they take part of it, they travel. But there is a structure – the country, identity, – the beams of which creak when it has to fit itself into to the flow of today’s world. Are we sure that
these flows are desirable? Wouldn’t we rather hold onto what we’ve acquired over time? This is the current social debate in France and it is right to be having it. What are the roles to be played by history, what’s being lived, and the transformation of the world? In Asia, in Latin America, and partially still in the United States. We can see where history is being made. In France the question is not “are we making history?” but “what do we do with the history of others?”
You are very attentive to the texture of your images. How did you work with Eric Gautier, your cinematographer?
Eric Gautier and I said early on that we would accentuate the movements of death and resurrection in the film. But I didn’t want to use painting or photography as a starting point. He knows my passion for Bonnard… We have spoken about him a thousand times. So instead I pointed him toward the poetic heart of the matter. I got him to listen to music: English hippy folk music from the sixties and seventies. I wanted a note that would evoke space, nature, melancholy, the passage of time and the seasons. In the end, there is very little music in the film but it has never been so easy for me to place it because it’s the music, as it is often the case, that inspired me. I knew in advance that it would blend seamlessly into the film. I looked among the compositions of Robin Williamson and the Incredible String Band, a hippy group that was scorned for a while but which is being rediscovered today. Its blend of Celtic and Oriental tonalities evokes a childlike sense of wonder.
You combine opposites in this film. Your realist approach, anchored in the here and now, encounters your stylization. In this way you are similar to the Asian directors you admire. Do you claim these influences as your own?
I want to answer very simply that SUMMER HOURS is my most Taiwanese film! It’s my own personal schizophrenia, but I’ve always felt like a sort of Taiwanese director working in France. When I started making movies, the preoccupations of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang affected me, resonated with my own. Later I became interested in the work of Wong Kar Wai and Tsai Ming-Liang. They are more my family than French cinema of the time, that of directors starting back then, with whom I had little in common in the generational sense. Their preoccupations were not mine. We had followed different paths. As strange as it may seem, with my Chinese friends I felt I could have, symbolically, the dialogue I had been deprived of here. With SUMMER HOURS I return to very local material where there is a relationship to nature, time and modernity, the themes I share with Hou Hsiao-Hsien.