Summer Hours (L’heure d’été), 102 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas 2 April 2009.


This summer brought with it, as it often does, several films that beautifully depict the long, hot, languid days of the season. Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (LSJ, Dec 2008) was one. Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours is another. Allen’s film was set in Barcelona, and Assayas’ film is set in the Ile de France region, in a town that’s 50 minutes by train from Paris.

The film opens with a group of young kids playing in a garden. We soon learn that this is a gathering of the Marly family, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the matriarch, who is not particularly pleased to have a fuss made of her. Hélène (Edith Scob) is not as interested in getting presents and drinking champagne as she is in putting her affairs in order. And so she takes her eldest son, Frederic (Charles Berling) aside and gives him an inventory of all of the important and valuable things in her home.

But this is no ordinary family home. It’s the home of a famous (fictional) artist, Paul Berthier, Helene’s uncle, who had amassed - and willed to her - a most valuable collection of 19th century art nouveau furniture and other artworks.  So the scene is set for a fascinating exploration some very big questions:

1.    What will we do when Mum (or Dad) dies? – the question no son or daughter wants to ask.
2.    What should we leave behind when we die?
3.    What is the role of precious objects in our lives? Should they be sold, and placed in museums, or should they continue to be used and loved by those to whom they have a special meaning?

In examining these issues, the director uses the family home, its precious (and not-so precious) contents, and its gorgeous gardens, as a metaphor for culture, tradition, ownership, and heritage. The way Assayas portrays the house is quite exceptional. It’s photographed with a kind of reverence, and yet with great warmth. Is this a museum, Assayas and his cinematographer Eric Gautier seem to be asking with each carefully-framed view?  Or is it a home? Should it be kept as-is forever? Is there scope for another family to call it home?

On the fringes, there’s Eloise, the faithful family housekeeper (Isabelle Sadoyan). Her life has been inextricably linked to the house, the garden, its contents, and the family. What is to happen to her after Hélène dies? Is she to be disposed of like a mere chattel? What is her life beyond the family home? What role does she have in preserving the memories of the home?

As if these issues weren’t enough, the film also delves into the relationship between Hélène’s 40-something children, each of whom lives a different sort of life. There’s Frédéric, an economist, who lives in Paris and wants to retain the status quo. There’s Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) who’s a designer of modern homewares and lives in New York. And there’s Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who lives and works in Beijing. This is not the traditional French family.

Assayas also carefully includes the position of the next generation, as portrayed by the teenaged children of Frédéric. The surprising final scenes give us a sensitive and moving glimpse of the way these kids view the past, and its relationship to their future.

Summer Hours is a thoughtful and comprehensive film. It looks at issues that will one day confront us all, though perhaps not on such a grand scale. It explores what Hélène so poetically, yet matter-of-factly calls “La suite” (what comes after), and another character calls “La maison après elle”.