A family ensembler of utter simplicity, Oliver Assayas’ “Summer Hours” is a salutory (and belated) reminder that, as with his earlier “Cold Water” and “Late August, Early September,” some of this writer-director’s best work comes in modest packages. About as far from his ambitious genre outings like “Demonlover” or orientalist extravagances like “Boarding Gate” as can be imagined, this French-to-its-fingertips musing-cum-discussion piece, about three siblings dealing with their late mom’s legacy, is a natural for offshore arthouses. Unaccountably turned down by this year’s Berlin fest, strongly cast pic opened well in Gaul on March 5, to warm reviews.
Like Taiwanese helmer Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” the film stems from a commission by Paris’ Musee d’Orsay to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The modern-art museum gets extensive verbal and visual references throughout — including a brief guided tour for two of the protags near the end — but Assayas constructs a convincing enough surrounding package that the pic is more than just a puff piece.
Opening 40 minutes take place at the comfy rural retreat of Helene Berthier (vet Edith Scob), who’s celebrating her 75th birthday with her two sons, Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), plus their wives (Dominique Reymond and Valerie Bonneton,respectively) and kids, and her daughter, Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche). The atmosphere is summery, but with a discernible edge: The whole family doesn’t get together that often, as Adrienne lives in New York with Yank b.f. James (Kyle Eastwood, seen briefly later) and businessman Jeremie is always on a plane somewhere.
Helene’s house, tended by devoted housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), is a shrine to the paintings and acquired artworks of her late brother. Helene uses the family gathering to have a quiet word with Frederic, whom she considers the rock of the family, about how to dispose of the artifacts after her death. Rather than see them sold off piecemeal, she wants them to be preserved as a private collection in a museum.
Some time after Helene’s death, Jeremie springs the news that he’s relocating for business reasons to China, while Adrienne is about to settle down Stateside and marry James. As the only one left in France, Frederic argues the strongest for their mom’s collection to remain intact.
Largely through the fine ensemble playing — with some discreet observational acting by Reymond as Frederic’s wife, Lisa — the film develops a subtle feel for the undercurrents that divide the siblings and Frederic’s growing sadness that a generational change is taking place now that their mother is gone. Adrienne is very much the family outsider — emphasized by Binoche’s distracted perf — but there are also incipient tensions between the two brothers that are worked out in a subsequent scene at a cafe, nicely played by Berling and Renier.
As pic moves into winter, and Musee d’Orsay reps visit Helene’s home, Eric Gautier’s lensing takes on a harder, cooler look, with more saturated colors, accompanied by a growing sense of loss. Final half-hour further emphasizes the sense of the generational torch being passed, as Frederic’s teen daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) assumes a larger role. Transition is initially clumsy, but the ending neatly reprises the summertime opening from a new perspective.
Assayas’ script is more allusive than demonstrative, with a distinct whiff of Eric Rohmer in its conversational blocks separated by fadeouts. At the end of the day, it’s a slim movie, with no dramatic fissures or development of the characters. Personal memories become public property and a fractured legacy; as Lisa notes, life just moves on.
Technical package is pro in an undemonstrative way, with spare use of dirge-like chamber music to underline the wistful mood.