Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)


Summer Hours

In life there may be nothing so wonderful as a mother's touch, no matter how old you are.

(IFC) Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Renier, Charles Berling, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valerie Bonneton, Isabelle Sadoyan, Kyle Eastwood. Directed by Olivier Assayas

One of the truths of life is that sooner or later we are all affected by death in one way or another, whether it is our own or that of a loved one. Most of us will have to face the loss of our parents sooner or later. How we deal with that loss is part of what defines who we are.

Helene (Scob) has gathered her children together for a momentous occasion, that of her 75th birthday. They have come from all over – Adrienne (Binoche) works for a magazine in New York and is engaged to marry James (Eastwood), and Jeremie (Renier) works for a large corporate entity that has sent him to China. Only Frederic (Berling) remains in France and it is he that Helene pulls aside to matter-of-factly discuss the disposition of her property upon her death – the summer home they are gathered in that once belonged to her uncle, a noted painter – and of the beautiful things in it, most of which were collected by her uncle and many of which are valuable. Helene realizes, even if Frederic does not, that her children have moved into the rhythm of their own lives and have no time for the songs of their childhood. Frederic believes that the other children will want to keep the house and its things in the family.

Shortly after her birthday Helene passes away and despite her attempts to prepare them, it comes as a shock to her children. True to Helene’s prediction, Jeremie and Adrienne are more disposed towards selling the house, donating some of the things to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and auctioning the rest. For Frederic it is a difficult pill to swallow and it puts a barrier, a small one but there nonetheless, between him and his siblings.

Yet there is much left unsaid. As the preparations are made to dispose of the property, the memories that were made there begin to recede and dissipate into the shadows of time. Even Frederic adjusts to the idea of the summer house being given to the caretaking of another family. Only Helene’s maid/cook/companion Eloise (Sadoyan) and, strangely enough, Frederic’s children, truly realize what they have given up.

If a studio had made this movie, the end result would have been far more sentimental and in the end would have been a standard tearjerker. In the hands of a master director as Assayas is (Irma Vep and Demonlover are two of his better-known works in the U.S.) the end result is more touching than sentimental, more thoughtful than emotional but balancing out all of these elements to make a movie that deals with adult emotions and adult situations on an adult level.

It helps to have an outstanding cast. Berling is an outstanding actor and he gets to shine here, as the son to whom it falls to sell the house and its things. It isn’t an easy task – I thought of all of the things in my mother’s house that one day I will have to see to and it hit home in a big way. They aren’t just things, you see; they are the artifacts of a life, and when they are sold, given away, donated or disposed of, that life slips away a little more. It’s another death, in that sense, and Frederic knows it and Berling shows it.

Binoche is simply one of the most incredible actresses on Earth; she plays real people, digs down to real emotions and rarely, if ever, strikes a false note. It is truly a shame she is less known on this side of the Atlantic except to film lovers willing to take a chance on a movie with subtitles. In a fair and just world, she would be the equal of Julia Roberts in fame and acclaim but she can be satisfied with the knowledge that those who appreciate her really appreciate her. She plays Adrienne as a woman consumed by her career but is called upon to face her own life and her own choices when her mother dies. Adrienne is not the sort to let her emotions get away from her, although cracks show in the facade from time to time. It is a masterful performance.

This is the kind of movie that can make more of an impression on you than any digital effect. This is about life, the things we all deal with – the dynamics of family, the pain of loss and the persistence of memory. They are the little things; lunch in the back yard, a swim in the pond, a mother’s gentle touch; these are the sums that make the whole of our lives. Assayas captures this in a movie that is not just about the sweet warmth of summer, but the knowledge that every summer must end, infused with the golden tones of late summer as it morphs into early fall. It is sad and sweet yet inevitable and even comforting. We all pass from summer into fall and winter, because that is the nature of life. Whether it is nobler to preserve our seasons of summer or to embrace the changes of the seasons instead I cannot say; I think in fact that it is our own opinion on that which is truly what defines us as people.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performances and one of the most affecting scripts in recent times.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter of parental loss is at times very raw and hard to watch.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is plenty mature and there’s some foul language; while there’s nothing overtly adult that you need to keep from the kids, this is not a movie most kids will want to share with you.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son, cameos as Adrienne’s fiancée.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Criterion Edition includes a wonderful piece on the Musee d’Orsay and its role in the production, and the Blu-Ray edition also includes a retrospective on the career of director Assayas as well as a 24-page booklet of set photographs.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Robin Hood