Thursday, June 4, 2009

Art House Salad: SUMMER HOURS

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dir. Olivier Assayas
IFC Films
103 min. NR

There used to be a family-owned restaurant and ice cream shop about three miles from my childhood home. Passed down through generations, it had long been a local landmark by the time I was old enough to pay my first visit. But a few years ago, the newest generation decided that they couldn't be bothered with the business, and sold it off to some developers who have since turned it into a strip mall.

A similar scenario is explored in “Summer Hours,” the quietly involving new drama from writer/director Olivier Assayas (“Clean,” “Demonlover”). When Hélène, a 75-year-old French heiress and art enthusiast, dies, her three grown children – Adrienne, a New York designer played by Juliette Binoche; Jérémie, a running shoe exec working out of China, played by Jérémie Renier; and Frédéric, an economist and professor and the only sibling left in France, played by Charles Berling – must decide what to do with all that she's left behind, including her memory-filled, garden-covered estate and the marvelous collection of art and antiques inside of it.

Hélène knew her end was near. In the film's beautifully bittersweet opening act (a tone that's echoed in its final scenes), she prophecizes her demise during the family's annual summer reunion, frantically informing Frédéric (the eldest sibling) of what she hopes will become of all her belongings. It's a sort of verbal last will and testament that the son respectfully regards as unnecessary. But roughly a year later, Hélène is indeed gone, and the aftermath is as she feared, albeit suspected: Adrienne and Jérémie have little interest in the house or the treasures, while Frédéric suffers silent anguish, knowing the fate of the family's heirlooms isn't in synch with his late mother's wishes.

“Summer Hours” slyly and naturally draws you into its story. Aside from prolific D.P. Eric Gautier's vibrant visuals (the picturesque family property and Binoche's crayon-box wardrobe really pop), the movie is very subdued; its appeal lies in the nuances of the narrative, the believable character dynamics (the whole cast is sublime), and the uncommon amount of attention paid to the pieces in Hélène's stunning collection (much of which came from an artist uncle who also hands down some whispered-at intrigue). I don't recall ever seeing a film with such a boundless love for antiques, or one that gives said objects such fascinating significance. The approach adds a sentimental profundity to the decisions made by the siblings, who, of course, discover some things about themselves and each other in the process.

Watching this film, I kept thinking about that eatery/ice cream shop, and just how much – if at all – the kids who sold it off have disappointed their Hélène. Are they pleased with their decisions? Do they have regrets? Are they designer and shoe exec-types too busy to care about sentimentality? And when they made said decisions, did they double-back on their pasts and reassess themselves and one another? Questions like these are ones that Assayas eloquently answers, making “Summer Hours” a sumptuous treat amidst a noisy summer season.
4.5 stars (out of 5).

This post originally appeared on's The Good Life Blog and has been reprinted with permission.

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