Summer Hours (Assayas, 2008)

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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, CleanBoarding 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.

Boarding Gate (Assayas, 2008)

Oliver Assayas’ Boarding Gate snakes through a cavernous international setting of deceit, a place defined by striking ellipsis’ and gaps. Assayas’ focus on obtuse and shifting characters makes the film an exhilarating and tense experience.

During her murderous global trek, Asia Argento’s conflicted heroine experiences a free fall of manipulation but miraculously transcends the male dominated world around her. The film envisions cramped, tightening postmodern spaces which act as intricate forces against individualism. As the title suggests, we’re all on perpetual standby, waiting to breakthrough the overwhelming fog of technology and greed.

Irma Vep (Assayas, 1996)

“But the predators on whom Assayas focuses—all working on the film or in the twilight zone of the production’s fringes—are vampires in every sense of the word, nocturnal animals feeding on human flesh.”

– Jonathan Rosenbaum on the characters of  Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep plays like 90’s version of Truffaut’s Day For Night, a frantic angst-ridden behind the scenes film about the angst-ridden process of film-making. Rosenbaum’s wonderful insights speak to the film’s connective quality between character and subject matter, hinting at the destructive nature of  stress, professional jealousy, and artistic madness occurring on multiple levels. Still, the film feels light on substance even though it’s dealing with complex confrontations between artistic expression and mainstream success. This whimsy that seemingly overtakes Irma Vep stems from Assayas’ determination to deconstruct the seriousness of French Cinema and the global film community’s impressions of his country’s predisposition to creating self indulgent philosophical meanderings. Maggie Cheung’s charming and inoffensive heroine feels slightly oblivious, relishing each moment in transcending ways.