Criterion // 2009 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // May 6th, 2010
Life is an art.
Olivier Assayas' critically acclaimed French drama Summer Hours (L'heure d'été) is one of the most realistic films i've seen in a long time. it's also one of the simplest in terms of storyline, but then again, it offers a truly compelling portrait of three siblings faced with a decision that will eventually determine the fate of their family's precious legacy. Summer Hours is now available on Blu-ray as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, and I'm not lying when I say the film now looks and sounds better than ever.
The story introduces us to Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), three siblings who head to the French countryside to visit their mother Hélène (Edith Scob) for her 75th birthday. As the sun gently pierces through the trees surrounding a beautiful garden, we see the reunited family sitting outside in comfortable chairs, enjoying drinks and catching up.
It's not like they get to do this all the time though. Jérémie flew in from Asia, where he's pursuing a solid career and building a new life with his wife and kids. Adrienne came all the way from New York, and she too is busy with work and her personal life. Only Frédéric is still living in France, but he doesn't get the chance to visit that often either.
As a caring mother, Hélène obviously realizes her children have moved on and established lives of their own, and that's one of the reasons she pulls aside Frédéric to tell him he and his siblings will have to take care of her estate and her belongings once she's gone. At first, Frédéric expresses his reluctance to discuss anything related to inheritance, but when his mother passes away shortly after, he's left in charge of launching a debate on what will happen with all her property.
Remember I previously mentioned Summer Hours is a simple film? In terms of plot structure it certainly is, because essentially, Frédéric, Jérémie and Adrienne spend most of the film trying to figure out what to do with their mother's country house and her elaborate collection of art pieces. Watching them try and resolve this single issue via a series of deep, honest conversations may sound a tad banal and repetitive at first, but truth be told, Assayas' clever, realistic dialogue and his natural characters keep every single minute of this beautiful French drama utterly engaging.
There are several reasons why this film works on pretty much every level, and one of them is first-class big-screen storytelling. Summer Hours is a very personal film for Assayas, and his script generates a constant curiosity that makes it very easy for viewers to keep wanting to watch what happens next. You see, the main conflict of the film emerges when we learn that the three siblings share different opinions on how to handle their inheritance. Frédéric feels it's best to keep everything in the family, whereas Jérémie and Adrienne prefer to sell most of it and split the money.
Assayas' main goal in Summer Hours was to dig deep into his intriguing characters and explore the siblings' reasons to either keep or get rid of their mother's collection of famous paintings and valuable antiques. In this process, he created a naturalistic portrait of three adults who try to protect their future without completely abandoning or ignoring the value of their family's past. They all understand every single art piece in Hélène's old home has its own story, but to them, this doesn't mean much. They've all grown up and learned to go their own way, but at the same time, they do feel guilty about abandoning what they know meant the world to their mother.
This, of course, creates an interesting conflict, and that's exactly what turns this movie into such a refreshing experience. On a slightly different note, the film also examines what can happen to a family when its members set out to start new lives far away from home, and as someone who has left Europe to live and work in the United States, this is something I could relate to very easily. When I first traveled back home to visit I immediately felt disconnected from my home country, and truth be told, I haven't returned since. In the movie, that's exactly what happens to Jérémie and Adrienne, who went through similar life changes and now feel less and less connected to their birthplace.
There is a whole lot more to discover about family generations and the meaning of personal art collections in Summer Hours, but I prefer to have you explore the rest of this masterpiece by yourself. What I will say though is that Assayas has generated a fantastic movie filled with meaningful dialogue and lifelike characters. For him, this was clearly a passion project, and you can easily recognize that in the flawless way he shot this film. Boasting a superb pace, a clever story and an extraordinary cast, Summer Hours is one of those memorable foreign films that will settle in your head and inspire you to watch it again and again.
Also, the case couldn't be more appropriate. I'm a huge fan of Charles Berling's work, and he completely shines in the role of Frédéric, the only one who argues it's worth keeping everything in the family. His performance is calm and filled with heart, but never exaggerated. In fact, none of the acting here is exaggerated or forced in any way. Summer Hours is anything but a melodrama, and Assayas' writing really makes it easier for his actors to let loose and offer their most natural performances yet. This also applies to the magnificent Juliette Binoche, who steals the show every time she is caught in the frame.
A beautifully shot film deserves the best quality on DVD, and Criterion did a fine job releasing a new high-def transfer of Summer Hours on Blu-ray. The disc offers viewers a solid 1.85:1 non-anamorphic presentation boasting strong colors and incredible image sharpness, and even though I occasionally spotted some flickering in the background at times, the overall picture quality does the movie justice. The new DTS-HD audio transfer makes this one a feast for your eyes.
Let me quickly talk about the special features of this edition. Besides a nice booklet with an essay about Assayas' works, the bonus material includes an in-depth interview with the director about the creation of the film, as well as an informative behind-the-scenes look with cast and crew interviews. Finally, you can also check out "Inventory," a one-hour documentary that takes a closer look at the film's approach to art. It's a must-see, for sure.
Summer Hours is a fantastic film. It's one of those cinematic treasures that actually means something, and I haven't seen enough of those lately. Assayas really took his time and treated this project with the utmost care, and the result is simply mesmerizing. You don't have to be a fan of French cinema to appreciate this movie, because it deals with universal themes and truths all of us will at one point be confronted with.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated