The charm of ultra-naturalistic, slice of life films where little happens must lie with the characters and the quality of the relationships that are drawn in the film. Denied action or deep drama, we look to be compensated by complex and interesting characters, and their responses to the subtle trials of life. In Summer Hours, (L’heure d’ete) , writer/director Olivier Assayas understates even this facet of the story, preferring us to ponder the themes of his film – the significance of memory, the relative value of objects, and the changes that occur in family and society as generations come and go.
Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) are siblings, and all with busy lives. Adrienne lives in New York and designs for a Japanese multinational, and Jeremie has recently moved to China to manufacture shoes. It’s only Frederic, the eldest of the three, who has remained in France. We come across the siblings and a hoard of their children – the next generation of this story – in the beautiful old family home where their 75-year-old mother Helene (Edith Scob) lives surrounded by art and rare art-deco furniture. The objects were collected by a long deceased, and now famous artist uncle, and when Helene dies, the three siblings must decide what to do with the house, its contents and the memories and secrets that are part of the place.
Assayas uses a loose narrative framework to play with his ideas, and restrains his characters and their actions severely, making it difficult to warm to them, despite the excellent ensemble performances. With the exception of the family’s ageing housekeeper, there is little sense of poignancy in the events that follow Helene’s death, with Assayas more interested in following the journey of various key art objects than he is the people who decide their fate. It makes for very cerebral viewing and is almost certainly a legacy of the film’s original backer – The Musee d’Orsay.
The style of the film – using long takes of busy scenes, no music and few close ups – adds to this sense of detachment. We are – like visitors in the museum experience Assayas is critiquing – denied the quality of an emotional connection. Perhaps this is Assayas’ point – that it is only when objects are personal, practical and in daily use that they become loaded with real meaning.