Summer Hours is an odd film. My companions in the cinema didn’t like it and although I enjoyed watching it on screen, it began to unravel as soon as I began to think about it and I can see why audiences might take against it. Nevertheless, it is a well-made film and it raises a number of institutional and formal questions as well as those relating to contemporary French culture.
The narrative focuses on a bourgeois family facing the moment when the matriarch dies and the fate of the family ‘heritage’ must be decided. Hélène Berthier is the widow of an industrialist but more importantly perhaps, the niece of a painter. It is the legacy of paintings, furniture and objets d’art as well as the country house in a village in Ile de France that forms the ‘heritage’. The new custodians will be Frédéric, an economist, his sister Adrienne, a designer of ceramics and his younger brother Jérémie who runs a factory in China making sports shoes. What will they want to do?
Juliette Binoche is the star of the film, but Adrienne is not the major character – we learn much more about Frédéric. This is partly because as the eldest, he has two older children and one of these, a teenage daughter allows the narrative to link grandmother and granddaughter – missing out the trio of working adults altogether. The significance of this becomes more apparent when you realise (as I did some time after watching the film) that writer-director Olivier Assayas started the project following a commission/proposal by the Musée d’Orsay (which features in the second half of the film). The objets d’art are really the central characters in the film and herein lies the problem for audiences expecting a conventional drama.
There is no ‘plot’ as such and certainly no dramatic construction. This is emphasised by the editing. We are presented with a sequence of tableau-like scenes which end with fades to black. A new scene fades up from black (often with sound overlapping the fade, so that we hear a babble of voices before we see the characters) but there is no real indication of how much time has passed and little dramatic tension. The narrative is not really interested in the characters as such – we learn little about them and there is little in their behaviour to evoke an empathetic response. Here is the French bourgeoisie discussing concepts of tradition, artistic discernment, pragmatic questions of financial security and, just occasionally, the remote possibility that great art can engender some passion. The only character who really appeals is the old housekeeper, who is largely untroubled by such questions and just does the human things – grieving and remembering. In formal terms, the camera also works against any kind of emotional involvement, constantly moving – twisting and turning between characters, so that important announcements by one character are undercut by another character’s movement across the foreground. I thought the camerawork was very good and that’s possibly what I enjoyed in following the ‘action’.
There is a sense in which the film invites us to consider the family as representative of the French bourgeoisie and to explore questions about globalisation, national heritage etc. Two of the three siblings live abroad and at one point Adrienne’s desire to sell her great uncle’s sketches in New York raises the issue of ‘national art treasures’ leaving the country. At one point, I thought that Frederic’s teenage son and daughter were there just to raise questions about how Americanised French teenagers have become. (Coincidentally, the Guardian published an article suggesting that France has now imported teenage binge-drinking from the UK on the day that I saw the film.)
So, what to make of all this? Summer Hours has received quite a good press in the UK. I’ve argued that it is well made and I think that the performances are good (especially by Charles Berling as Frédéric) but I’m a little surprised that it appeals beyond that. Personally, I’m not that concerned about furniture, glassware and other aspects of design, but even if I was, the film doesn’t really explore what it is about the objets that makes them so important. I’m much more interested in the social/political questions and in this sense the film is frustrating. Frédéric’s professional problems as an economist and his relationship with his son and daughter and his wife – a very under-developed character – would be much more interesting.
The case for the defence is put by Tony Rayns in a Sight and Sound review (August). Significantly, Rayns is an acknowledged expert on East Asian cinemas and he dubs this film as ‘Taiwanesque’, inspired by Hou Hsaio-hsien. Olivier Assayas has many East-Asian connections and this seems a justifiable approach. I confess that I worry that I’m prepared to struggle with Hou but likely to get more impatient with French art films. This perhaps suggests that I have a kind of snobbery about the taiwanese films which I guess could be dangerously close to finding them ‘exotic’ and assuming that the French are more like the English. An example of this comes in my comments on Hou’s Paris-set film, also with Binoche, Le voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2006). Rayns’ review is persuasive in many ways and I’m inclined to move back in favour a little. I did think as I watched it that it dealt with important issues that families everywhere face, but then the politics and emotional coldness of the bourgeoisie returned to put me off. It would, of course, make an interesting comparison with one of my favourite films of the year, Couscous.