Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer Hours review

Good movie. It's out at the Landmark (of course) now, for all you Chicagoans. Here's the review I wrote for the Spectator website:

Summer Hours sheds light on the pains of letting go
by Julia Alekseyeva

What happens to beloved objects when we die? Do the possessions of the deceased become immortalized in memory, or fade into nothingness? These heavy-handed questions are explored in French director Olivier Assayas’s often understated but beautifully rendered film, Summer Hours (L’heure d’été).

The theme of family heirlooms might seem exclusively European and only loosely connected to the modern notion of class mobility, but Summer Hours is less about inheritance and possession and more about the actual memory of those possessions. As the film labors on, the theme permeates intensely, resonating immediately with the experience of the moviegoer.

The plot has often been described as a family drama in the style of playwright Anton Chekov—an elderly woman, heiress of her famous uncle’s expansive art collection and French country estate, suddenly dies, leaving her three adult children torn about what to do with the objects that remain. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the youngest, is a motivated businessman who relocated to China. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a successful designer living in New York. The only non-estranged sibling is the eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), a professor of economics living in Paris.

Assayas writes in the press notes, “Charles Berling is the spokesman for my own questioning.” Of all the siblings, Berling’s Frédéric approaches the treasures of the past with the most respect and sentimentality.

As the narrative builds, the question of how the children should deal with the possessions lingers—sell the precious memorabilia, keep it for posterity, or display it in a museum. How is memory best preserved?

Undoubtedly, memory is a daunting topic for a film, which usually relies on dramatic events and artistry to hold the audience’s attention. Yet Summer Hours is able to do this without a great deal of either aspect overtaking the thematic resonance. Although the siblings differ in opinion, there is a tone of mutual love and respect—no hyperbolic drama. Music is sparse and atmospheric—an acoustic guitar or cello here and there, with no recognizable soundtrack. And unlike Assyas’s previous features like Boarding Gate, his camera contains few cinematographic tricks.

But most surprising is the film’s complete lack of montage, making the movie appear like a bona fide slice of life, containing its mundane moments as well. Assyas brings an honesty to the film, enhanced by the perfect cast and spot-on acting. Its only detriment is perhaps being too honest. A bit too drawn out to be an accessible feature, Summer Hours moves a little too slowly during sequences of nonstop dialogue.

Regardless, viewers will barely notice that there is little action to the movie at all. The film makes it clear that it is about art and its relation to memory, and, as The Da Vinci Code taught us, one cannot mix intense drama and museum collections without risking complete absurdity. Made in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the film uses the museum well, and it plays an important role in the plot.

The film is also beautifully edited, which adds to its artistic feel. Set mostly in the heart of summertime, the colors are vibrant and sensuous. Even when discussing such melancholic topics as death and inheritance, there is a lightness and splendor, and even a certain hopefulness. Summer Hours is meditative without being pretentious, engaging without being over-the-top—it is simply an enjoyable film.

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