Of Time and the Country: Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours

by robbiefreeling
May 11, 2009 2:36 AM
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Early in Olivier Assayas’s elegant and elegiac Summer Hours, grown siblings sit at a table with their aging mother outside their family’s country home. Paging through a book of their late great-uncle’s art, they notice a picture from generations ago of people sitting at the very same table, in the very same place. The people are dead, but the table, the object, endures. Later, one of these siblings, Frederic (Charles Berling), opens the drawer of an armoire that belongs to his mother but is basically a museum piece, and pulls out a toy plane that someone, perhaps he as a child, left there. The furniture is a work of art, but it’s also a part of a living space, a repository of memories. “You prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” the mother (a marvelous Edith Scob) tells her daughter, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche). In Summer Hours, though, every object, and every place, is weighed down by the past—indeed, the past gives these things their value, sentimental and otherwise.

In his last three feature films, Assayas has flung his characters from Paris to Hong Kong, Vancouver to San Francisco, and Tokyo to Paris back again. His is a particularly kinetic cinema that is very much of this moment, built on roving hand-held camerawork and exquisitely choreographed tracking shots, preoccupied with globalization. By contrast, Summer Hours opens placidly with a static shot of the country house. The image, which almost seems to stand outside of time, suggests a melancholic nostalgia and an uncharacteristically rooted sense of place. When Frederic, Adrienne, and their younger brother, Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), inherit the home and the paintings, sculptures, and furniture within it (a collection of such artistic significance that the Musee d’Orsay expresses interest), they must decide what to do with the estate - a challenge, since Adrienne lives in the U.S. and Jeremie has relocated to Beijing. Like many of Assayas’s characters, these two are citizens of a flattening world where national borders feel increasingly irrelevant, but their dilemma is (like the film itself) parochial, tied to a place and a past they left behind.

Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski's review of Summer Hours.

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