Judge Gordon Sullivan thought it was a short summer.
Our review of Summer Hours: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published May 6th, 2010, is also available.
"Pays respect to the family by treating it with honesty."
"Death is a natural part of life." It doesn't get much more trite than that. Similarly, the story of a group of children dealing with the death and inheritance has been done, quite literally, to death. The shock, the grief, and the squabbling over objects seemed to lose its charm years ago, but like that tired quote I opened with, there's enough truth in the story to make it worth repeating. Enter Olivier Assayas, the French director famed for his emotional impact and oddly versatile career. He strips back the melodramatic moments and hunts for the human element in dealing with death. The product is Summer Hours, a compellingly emotional look at the impact of death on a family that Criterion have brought to DVD with a strong audiovisual presentation and informative extras.
Facts of the Case
The film opens on a family reunion. All three children (along with their spouses and grandchildren) of Hèléne have gathered on her seventy-fifth birthday. For the last several decades Hèléne has lived in the same house keeping alive the memory of her uncle, a famous artist. Now that she is aging, she attempts to make some provisions for the vast collection of valuable art, furniture, and various effects of her famous relative. When she dies rather suddenly a few months later, her three children have to decide how best to pay her lingering debts while maintaining the spirit of her intents towards the house and its artifacts.
Most stories of children dividing up their parents' effects are shallow attempts at comedy, with broad characters whose only real attributes are the ridiculous reasons they need and/or want Mommy's and Daddy's money. Sometimes, the story is a drama, but the characters are the same, emotionally thin with only plot-driving reasons for wanting the cash. Summer Hours goes the exact opposite route. All three of Hèléne's children are conflicted about both their mother, and the situation she's left them in. They each have a very strong reason for disposing of their mother's things, and yet each is also somewhat drawn to the house, as their early reunion shows.
But the biographical details that make the children conflicted about their mother's effects aren't important. No, what makes Summer Hours compelling is the interaction between the children as they discuss the fate of the house, their history together, and the artistic legacy of their famous grand-uncle. All of them are at a crossroad in their own lives, and all their interactions show the conflict between wanting to be true to their collective past without jeopardizing their individual futures. These moments feels so honest, so real, and yet I suspect that very few people are mature enough to handle these situations with the class of Hèléne's offspring.
The reason these interactions works is the fantastic acting of all involved. Juliette Binoche plays the distant artist with a wonderfully icy exterior. Charles Berling plays the warmer, more responsible brother who seems to most desperately want to save the house, while Jèrèmie Renier seems the more cutthroat, business-minded sibling. Although those are the general impressions the characters leave, these actors won't let them be stereotypes, and watching their interaction is the film's chief joy.
Assayas knows that watching is one of the key words in this film, and to that end he marries a distinctly subtle and naturalistic camera style to the actors' performances. There's a hint of fluid movement and subtle cuts in the editing of the film, and it was only on a second viewing that I realized how strong his framing is. Most of the film consists of intimate conversations, and Assayas respects that with medium close-ups, but rather than sticking with standard shots or going wacky with tricky framing, he balances meticulously on the point in between. His shots offer the recognition of familiarity, but are formal and different enough to be satisfying as more than vehicle for conversation.
Criterion has released Assayas' film in a two-disc DVD package. The first disc is dedicated to the film alone, and that shows in this excellent transfer. The film has a muted, naturalistic look that is reproduced well on this disc, with strong detail and no compression problems to speak of. The stereo French audio track doesn't have any frills, but it gets the job done with dialogue. English subtitles play automatically.
Extras are housed on the set's second disc. They start with a 30-minute interview with director Olivier Assayas discussing how the project came to be. Then another half hour is devoted to a behind-the-scenes documentary, and finally an hour long look at the film's use of art entitled "Inventory." As usual, Criterion provides a booklet with a critical essay by Kent Jones. Considering this is Assay's first Criterion title, it's a wonderful overview of Assayas' work that gives newcomers an idea of how Summer Hours fits in with his other films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Summer Hours is a film that unfolds at its own pace. The first half hour or so is really a kind of prologue, and even once the "plot" gets going it's mostly made up of character moments. That makes Summer Hours a rather slow viewing experience, and those looking for a fast-paced film will certainly be disappointed by Summer Hours' slow pace.
Also, it's a minor quibble, but Criterion doesn't subtitle exchanges in English on most of their foreign-language DVDs. There aren't that many moments of spoken English in Summer Hours, but it would have been nice if they were subtitled, too.
Summer Hours is an emotionally gripping tale of how three people deal with moving on from loss. Although all the trappings are there to make this yet another story of kids squabbling over the inheritance, the emotional depth of the writing, the subtlety of the acting, and Assayas' sure hand behind the camera keep this film from being anywhere close to trite. Criterion has done another excellent job bringing this contemporary film to DVD in the States with a strong audiovisual presentation and a set of extras sure to please fans.
Summer Hours may feel a bit long, but it's certainly not guilty.
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