On the surface “Summer Hours” is a domestic drama about three middle-aged children disposing of the property of their deceased mother—an estate that includes not merely a lovely country house and its grounds, but also items of artistic and financial value collected by her uncle, a noted painter himself. And on that level alone, it’s a perceptive, sharply observed film.
But Olivier Assayas’ picture has deeper currents. It uses the familial episode to comment obliquely on the cultural changes occurring in France, generational shifts, the impact of globalization on national identity and—as befits a project commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to celebrate its twentieth anniversary—the importance of preserving the country’s artistic patrimony intact (and establishing legal procedures for doing so). But it touches on all these matters gently, without heavy-handedness, and they enrich the story rather than weighing it down.
The film begins with a family gathering for the seventy-fifth birthday of matriarch Helene Pauly (Edith Scob) at her home. Older son Frederic (Charles Berling), a university economics professor, is there with his wife Lisa (Dominique Reymond) and their two teenaged children. His younger siblings are there as well—unmarried Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer working in New York, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), who’s living in China, where he’s on the management team of a western sneakers company taking advantage of the cheap labor force. He’s brought along his wife (Valerie Bonneton) and three young children. During the afternoon, Helene instructs Frederic, who will be her executor, about how her estate is to be dealt with—particularly the furniture, art and sketchbooks of her late uncle Paul Berthier, to whom she was (and indeed still is) devoted.
Soon afterward, Helene has died, and the survivors assemble to decide about their inheritance. Frederic wants to keep the house for the family and sell the Berthier collection to the museum intact, but he’s outvoted by Adrienne and Jeremie, who do not plan to return to France and prefer selling the place and dividing up the collection to get the best prices. There follows the visit of staff from the Musee d’Orsay to evaluate the collection and the decision of the institution’s board about what items to purchase. The film closes with a visit by Frederic and Lisa to the museum to see the items on display, and a party held at Helene’s house by their daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) and her friends just before it’s to change hands—a gathering that acts as a counterpoint to the one that opened the picture, tinged with inevitable change and regret for what’s been lost.
Despite the title, there’s necessarily an autumnal tone to “Summer Hours,” symbolized especially well in Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Helene’s long-time housekeeper, whose no-nonsense acceptance of her mistress’ demise is coupled with sadness over it. Sadoyan is touching without ever becoming maudlin, and Assayas gets similarly well-pitched performances from his entire cast, from Charles Berling pere to Emile Berling fils, who plays his son. Binoche and Renier are equally fine as the expatriate siblings with lives of their own, and Scob is every bit the dignified, old-fashioned matriarch. The visual style of the film is unostentatious but crisp, with the cinematography by Eric Gautier (who shot Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” in far lusher tones) unobtrusively enriching the atmosphere.
“Summer Hours” can be appreciated simply as a literate, intelligent account of the change that time brings to a family. But if one looks a bit deeper, that story has more profound implications. Bittersweet, quietly poignant and emotionally resonant but without tears, it’s a film about art that becomes a work of art itself.