Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Real people, real issues in 'Summer Hours'

I love the French movie "Summer Hours," so if you see it and don't share my enthusiasm, we'll just have to agree to disagree. In my view, director Olivier Assayas has made an impeccably acted study of family deterioration and the disconnect between generations. Finally, a story that feels as if it's being lived by real people. Just as important, "Summer Hours" deals with things that matter to us all -- or should.

Normally, I wouldn't begin with the way a film looks, but in the case of "Summer Hours," the camera is a vitally important to the film's vitality -- and it has plenty. Cinematographer Eric Gautier, who shot the equally absorbing "A Christmas Tale," is one of the best in the business. Gautier knows how to move a camera in ways that keep us involved, capturing the rhythms of ordinary life and allowing important story points to emerge. There's something breathless, exciting and deeply relevant about his work.

In one scene, a woman answers a cell phone call, rises from her chair and leaves the room to talk in private. The camera follows her for a second, yielding to this momentary distraction. Quickly, the image reverts to the discussion that was taking place when the phone rang, a conversation among three siblings (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier). They're discussing what to do with the family's lovely country home now that their mother (Edith Scob) has passed away.

Grief and practical concerns threaten to overwhelm the characters. As if to complement the emotional quality of the moment, the camera forces our eyes to move more quickly than we'd like, almost as if time is racing ahead of us and we can't quite keep up. It's a way for Assayas ("Irma Vep" and a segment of "Paris je'taime') to heighten awareness about the current imbalance between stability and change.

As we soon discover, Scob's Helene was completely devoted to her uncle, a second-tier painter whose work is about to receive retrospectives in a variety of locations, including San Francisco. In addition to having become the caretaker of her uncle's art and reputation (and possibly more) Helene has amassed a considerable collection of valuable, museum-quality objects and antiques. On her 75th birthday, she already has concluded that her heirs will sell her beloved home and most of her possessions. In a way, she's anticipating the decline of the culture to which she has devoted her life.

Only Helene's oldest son (Berling) wants to maintain the house and its contents. He hopes everything can be passed along to Helene's grandchildren. Bincoche's Adrienne lives and works in New York and sees no benefit in holding onto the property. The same goes for younger brother Jeremie (Renier) who works for a company that manufactures sneakers in China. He and his family are about to move to Beijing, and he's in need of ready cash.

Assayas wisely keeps the conflict level low. This isn't a movie about a clash of sibling wills; it's about the inevitable way in which time and distance erodes family ties and in which powerful new forces can create a national sense of dislocation.

In a wonderfully off-handed moment, Berling's Frederic and his wife visit Musée d’Orsay, the institution that has been the recipient of some of Helene's things. They look at a desk that once was Helene's. Now, it stands alone in a museum, a kind of monument to its design. Just before Frederic and his wife enter the frame, a young man answers a cell phone call from a friend who's touring the museum with a group. He's obviously not riveted by what he sees and suggests that he and his phone friend take in a movie. You get the feeling that these pals are not headed to the local art house. Without underscoring the importance of the moment, Assayas encapsulates a generational attention shift -- from high to popular culture.

Frederic's awareness of what's happening makes the movie emotionally effective. He wants to keep the family home intact, but on some level, he knows that it's impossible. He's angry that his siblings plan to sell, but he also understands their position. Berling makes us feel both Frederic's sense of loss and his resignation.

Binoche's work also is pitch perfect. She's playing a woman who's devoted to a contemporary sensibility. She's engaged to an American and can be abrupt and emotionally removed from her siblings. At the same time, Binoche's Adrienne has a moving moment in the funeral home after her mother's death. She leaves the room where the body has been on display, sits down across from other brother and verges on tears. No words are spoken, but we see Adrienne's grief, as well as a suggestion that for all its drama, life ends too quickly and may not amount to much. Renier's performance is also good; his character knows how much his need for money is hurting his older brother. These are not characters who act blindly, but who understand themselves and their situations. Put another way, they're not afraid to display some intelligence.

Assayas ends the movie in a way that closes the story's circle without betraying its themes. "Summer Hours" establishes itself, at least for me, as an important movie. Its style is open-ended, even breezy, and its issues are both specific and universal. It feels current and yet establishes a connection with the French cinema of the past.

On one level, the message here is simple: Time vanquishes culture. Assayas isn't wringing his hands and whining about this; he's watching, observing, alert to the sadness and opportunity in the present moment.

"Summer Hours," then, is a work defined by sorrow and acceptance, two qualities that probably are essential for all of us who are old or wise enough to understand something about the aching beauty of passing time. But -- and this is an important caveat -- there are no traces of faux melancholy in "Summer Hours." Sorrow may be unavoidable, but Assayas refuses to succumb to pessimism. Perhaps it's going too far, but the movie's ending made me wonder whether Assayas doesn't know how to look into the abyss and wink. I think he may.

"Summer Hours'' opens in Denver Friday, and will slowly work its way around the country.

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