In Summer Hours, past memories and treasures slowly slip from reach after the passing of a matriarch, revealing long gestating fissures of time and distance within a modern French family. Master French director Olivier Assayas returns to a lyrical and quiet cinema after the international kinetic angst of Demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate, and the result borders on sublime perfection. Adrienne (Julliete Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling), and Jeremie (Jeremie Reiner) are the children of Helene (Edith Scob), an elegant art collector whose lifelong passion has been to preserve a famous uncle’s paintings. In the opening scene, Assayas flutters around the family’s summer home, an enchanting station of sunlight and greenery, what was once a hub of tradition is now only a stopover where grown children and their kin gather for special occasions, this time Helene’s 75th birthday. Time slowly passes in these early moments, but Helene obviously feels the push of mortality as she prepares oldest son Frederic for life after her death. Helene understands the gap between her life’s work and the diverging paths of the children, yet Frederic yearns to hold onto something nostalgic. He doesn’t want to think about life without his mother, and his endearment comes from a lovely, worried sense of place. When Helene inevitably passes, the difficult decision to sell off the family haven and all the antiques, both valuable and sentimental, becomes the subtle core driving these characters forward.
Summer Hours charts a moment in everyone’s life when point of view permanently shifts, when the emotional icons of your life no longer inhabit the same space. It’s characters fluctuate in dynamic emotional ways, yet are always anchored by a palpable sense of pragmatism. As the oldest and only sibling still rooted in France, Frederic gets the most attention and depth. Whether he’s gathering up items for auction or visiting once family heirlooms in an impersonal museum setting, Frederic evokes the film’s themes – hesitation, regret, and isolation – most beautifully. It’s no coincidence Assayas ends on Frederic’s daughter hosting a weekend party at the summer house. What at first seems like a desecration of everything that has come before by an ungrateful youth, ends up being a revelation of hope. Despite appearances and generation gaps, this young woman understands the importance of family history, and is willing to stray off the familiar path and create new memories, new family treasures.