Summer Hours

Marking a change of pace for the cult Gallic director Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours is a keenly observed French family drama, laced with the lyrical and evocative tone of a Chekhovian work (The Cherry Orchard)
Grounded in the specific locale of an estate just outside of Paris, it raises some interesting universal issues about memory and history, national identity in the postmodern world, global economy and its implications.  Remarkably, all of these explorations are done in a subtle way that never calls attention to itself.
Assayas strategy is helped by the use of a mobile and fluid camera, which observes the characters and their dilemmas without making value judgments.
The film begins with a celebration of the seventy-fifth birthday of Helene (Edith Scob), a sharply intelligent woman who’s the heiress to her uncle’s exceptional 19th century art collection. When Helene suddenly dies, her three children are faced with the need to decide what to do with her place, her treasures, and her belongings.
Most of the narrative centers on the divergent, colliding paths of the three fortysomething siblings, who need to come to terms with themselves, their differences, and who they really are.
Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a successful New York designer, Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist and university professor in Paris, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a businessman in China. Through variously intense encounters, the siblings have to confront the end of their childhood and shared memories, and their uncertain vision of life in the future.
Adrienne, who lives in New York City with an American man, and Jeremie, who’s working in Asia, understand that their future no longer resides in France, thus leaving the burden to Frederic, the most overtly emotional of the trio.  Initially, he holds that they need to do everything possible to hold onto the house and its treasures.
On the surface, you could classify “Summer Hours” as a dysfunctional family drama, in the tradition of fellow French directors, such as Arnaud Desplechin’s superb “A Christmas Tale” (with Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch).  Assayas offers a drama that despite its central grave issues, doesn’t resort to manipulative melodramatics.  There are disagreements, expressions of anger, and frustrations, but there is no fighting or screaming, as would have been the case in a similar American movie.   In “Summer Hours,” the characters seem to understand, to accept, and to respect their differences, which they eloquently express with a look, a smile, a shrug (sort of saying, ‘c’est la vie).
Olivier Assayas most recently made the crime thriller “Boarding Gate,” but I much prefer his earlier work, such as the light satire, “Irma Vep” (with Maggie Cheung, his wife at the time).
Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Eric Gautier (who had also worked with Gus Van Sant), the drama is fluent, touching, and in moments sad and lyrical.
The poignant conversations, the smooth visual style, and the flawless performances contribute to a gently evocative rumination about time, memory and identity, placed against the inevitable effects of post-modernization on the way we live now.
“Summer Hours” is the second part of “Paris’s Musée d’Orsay” project, whose goal is to associate cinema with the celebrations of its twentieth birthday by offering carte blanche to several directors from different backgrounds.
For technical reasons, the project had to be abandoned, and only one film had been made, “Flight of the Red Balloon,” by Hou Hsiao Hsien, which also starred Juliette Binoche.