There are precious few things we know about Valeria Bruni Tedeschi after watching her film “The Summer House” that we did not know before. But here’s one: The writer-director-star understands how her detractors perceive her. And so unfolds an early scene that seems designed to head the inevitable criticisms off at the pass: At a financing meeting for her new film, director Anna (Bruni Tedeschi) faces a panel of nonplussed producers who complain that her next project is the same as all her others and that her screenplay is “fragile.”
The scene is an amusingly brittle comedy of manners with the director, as ever, gamely ready to cast herself as the ditz. But it is also pointedly metatextual and has credibility-laden documentary guru Frederick Wiseman in it, gnomically sitting on the panel looking as baffled to be there as we are to see him. For a moment it seems like Bruni Tedeschi, blessed with sudden self-awareness, is doing something new, but then “The Summer House” happens, and it’s the same as all the others, and the screenplay is fragile.
Maybe it’s meant to be cute, but there is something particularly aggravating about acknowledging the potential weaknesses in your work and then going ahead and indulging them all anyway. Once again adhering to the “write what you know” school of thought — particularly fallacious when what you know exclusively involves disgraced tycoons, the sexcapades of one’s household staff, and a delightfully crumbly Cote d’Azur villa with its own sparkling stretch of private beach — Bruni Tedeschi takes us on another low-stakes, lightly fictionalized tour of her dippy family’s travails, with a sense of humor that manages to self-deprecate without ever actually becoming self-critical.
Of course it’s an exaggeration to say this film is exactly the same as her others. Her last movie was “A Castle in Italy”; this one is in France. As the story begins, Anna is in Paris being tactfully but unmistakably dumped by her longtime partner Luca (Riccardo Scamarcio, on stand-in duty for Bruni Tedeschi’s ex-partner Louis Garrel) on the eve of a holiday they were due to take with their adopted daughter Célia (Oumy Bruni Garrel, the director’s daughter). Anna and Célia go to the French summer house to hang with her family including mother Louisa (Bruni Tedeschi’s mom Marisa Borini), sister Elena (Valeria Golino), and Elena’s magnate husband Jean (Pierre Arditi), with the clingy Anna deluding herself that Luca will be along to join them later.
At the house she is joined by her writing partner Nathalie (again, real-life co-writer Noémie Lvovsky), a down-to-earth type who waits patiently for Anna to find time for work in her busy schedule of moping, pining, and harassing Luca by phone. And then there’s the below-stairs cast: longtime butler Gerard (Joel Clabeult), whose repeated requests for a meeting to discuss overtime pay are met with distracted stonewalling; housekeeper Jacqueline (Yolande Moreau), on the cusp of cheating on her senile husband with the night guardsman; and handsome cook Jean-Pierre (Francois Negret), who takes a fancy to Nathalie.
The film is an increasingly grating succession of minor revelations and recriminations during light lunches, al fresco dinners, nighttime trysts, impromptu concerts and sunny garden conversations, on the fringes of which hovers the specter, seen by several characters, of Anna and Elena’s beloved dead brother Marcello (Stefano Cassetti). Insofar as the film deals in any ethical quandary, it is with whether or not Anna is justified in including an account of her brother’s death — by some distance the realest thing that has ever happened to this cosseted bunch — in her film. But then, seeing as this film is that film and Ghost Marcello pops in every now and then to have a chat and ultimately give his blessing, even that question can be considered asked-and-answered.
Other than grief for Marcello, as regards tragedy there’s really nothing to compare to “A Castle in Italy’s” harrowing depiction of a family forced to sell one of its Bruegels, though a particularly nice-looking ossobuco is dropped, splashing irretrievably over terrace and trouser leg. There’s one racist outburst from Jacqueline, one shrugged-off insinuation of childhood abuse, and one sad story of an abortion, but even these potentially moving moments are crowded out by the aggressive frivolity of the approach elsewhere: a drunken Elena dancing with statues; a simpering Jacqueline being seduced in a boat; a monomaniacally lovelorn Anna leaving yet another needy message on Luca’s voicemail. Even the moment when old family friend Bruno (Bruno Raffaelli) goes missing and is feared drowned makes little impact on any of them except little Célia, who is perhaps too young to have yet fully learned that her family’s old-money wealth has bought her the right not to give a damn about anyone even marginally outside that complacent inner circle.
It’s not that films should not be set among the rich. Jean Renoir made a clutch of masterpieces dealing with the French bourgeoisie, and Anton Chekhov, a clear inspiration, found universal insights in the minute examination of the wealthy. But there needs to be at least a light brush of class commentary, while here, wealth is a helpless condition, an attribute over which the characters have no control, and for which they take no blame or moral responsibility. Their wealth is like the weather, and it just so happens always to be sunny.
And so they footle around in the sunshine of Jeanne Lapoirie’s brightly Mediterranean camerawork, with increasingly wearisome results climaxing, before a pointless epilogue, in big old sing-song. It’s so interminable that we could almost credit Bruni Tedeschi with playing a much deeper game and encoding into this vapid portrait a heartening moral for us 99-percenters watching: If the cost of being rich is having to suffer through all this self-absorption, and all these painful family gatherings and amateur concerts? Stay poor.