There is only the present, but the non-existent past constantly haunts it by deceptive and enduring means. Ghosts linger through memory and through objects whose value, both sentimental and economic, is determined only by those memories. Some of these object-memories are shared by the public: an old wool baseball jersey may be destined for the garbage, but a wool jersey once worn by Babe Ruth fetches thousands at auction. Others are private: a tattered armchair is hardly worth a glance, but the tattered armchair in which your mother sat every evening can be a talisman. Director Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours" occurs at the intersection of these public and private spheres.
As the film opens, three generations of an upper class family are gathered at a country home to celebrate the 75th birthday of matriarch Hélène (a beautiful Edith Scob proving that 70-something is the new 50-something). Hélène, though vibrant, is ill and wants to clarify the terms of the inheritance to her children. Her oldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), like most sons, is not ready to hear his mother talk about death so he doesn't listen when she insists that she doesn't want her children beholden to the same memories as she is. This is crucial because Hélène lives in a house decorated from stem to stern with valuable artwork of all kinds (paintings, furniture, vases) that were originally collected by her uncle Paul Berthier, a locally respected but not necessarily world-renowned (and entirely fictional) painter.
Hélène has chosen to keep the collection intact to honor Paul's memory (and her love for him) but she is wise enough to know that the objects don't hold the same deeply personal memories for the next generation, and that stewardship over them would be a prison sentence. Frédéric can't quite grasp the concept but his sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, better every year) and brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier, who has surreptitiously aged into his late-20s before the eyes of cinema watchers across the globe) come to terms with it quickly after Hélène's passing. It's easier for them because, unlike for Frédéric, their lives have already taken them to distant climes (Adrienne to New York, Jérémie to Peking) and their memory links to home have already been partially severed. As Adrienne says, the house doesn't mean as much to her anymore: "Nor does France." Frédéric is not only outvoted, but as the only local, is forced to be in charge of the dispersal of the objects (and the memories attached to them) that he wants to cling to.
His loss is France's gain, however. The Musée d'Orsay is interested in the collection because of the very public heritage they represent. They are beautiful works, to be sure, but their value isn't defined as much by their virtuosity as by their authorship. The desk is "a Louis Majorelle," the paintings are "the two Corots" and so on. For Frédéric, they say "mom" or "childhood" but for the Museum, they say "famous artists" and "French culture," a subject which informs much of Assayas' work. In "Irma Vep" he struggled to define the amorphous concept of "French film" in the 1990s by not-so-paradoxically bringing in Hong Kong star (and, briefly, his wife) Maggie Cheung, and several of his recent films have directly confronted creeping globalization.
The defense of national identity set aside, "Summer Hours" is primarily a film about the ebbs and flows of life. Some of the most poignant moments in the film have little to do with the primary plot. At one point, Frédéric has to bail out his teenage daughter who is busted for shoplifting, a major event for both father and daughter but one that is simply raised and dropped in the same scene. In a subtle touch, Hélène's death is handled circumspectly. Frédéric never gets that dramatic phone call. After the lengthy opening scene (which ends on a shot of Hélène alone in a darkened room after the family has left), we cut directly to him doing a radio interview for his controversial new book. He drives off to the funeral home to complete the final arrangements. It is several months later. She has already died. He and his siblings have already been told. And life goes on.
All four leads are superb (did I mention that Binoche gets better every year?) but it is Charles Berling's quiet, textured performance that drives the film. He is completely blindsides by his siblings' desire to sell the home, but he is beholden by familial duty to react in a measured way. At the lawyer's office, he is ready to strangle Jérémie but moments later he gives him a sturdy hug as they head off for a drink. The relationships between the brothers and sister are multi-layered and utterly convincing. When Adrienne announces her engagement, Frédéric and Jérémie burst into laughter at memories of her failed first marriage ("We never called it a disaster!") Points raised, point dropped again. Little touches like this make "Summer Hours" a rare pleasure.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. As you would expect from a two-year old film, the transfer (restored from an interpositive) is clean and sharp with a bright "summery" color palette. The Blu-Ray shows the usual improvements over the SD release (which is already sharp) in terms of detail and overall richness, most notably in the outdoor scenes at the country home.
The Blu-Ray is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The surround channels aren't used extensively but the ambient sounds at the party scenes mark the most notable audio improvements over the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the SD release. The lossless sound is, of course, clean as a whistle. There's little doubt that the film sounds better here than it did in many theaters with aging sound systems. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
An interview with Assayas (29 min.) was recorded for the Criterion Collection in Paris in Jan, 2010 which has to make it one of the more recently recorded extras they've ever included. Assayas discusses the film's genesis in his personal life (dealing with the passing of his mother) and his search for the right house.
"Inventory" is a 50-minute long documentary directed by Olivier Goinard. "Summer Hours" originated as a project for the Musée d'Orsay (as did Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Flight of the Red Balloon" also starring Juliette Binoche) and Goinard's documentary discusses the Museum's involvement in the film, focusing on the selection of items from the Museum's collection that were used in the film. It's very interesting though a bit long.
A "Making-of" documentary (26 min.) mixed on-set footage with cast and crew interviews. It's fairly standard for a "Making of" film and is the least engaging of the extras but still of some interest.
The 26-page insert booklet features a detailed essay by Kent Jones which will serves as a thorough overview of Assays' work for those not familiar with him. Jones has known Assayas for a while and his insights into the director's work are unique.
Olivier Assayas is one of the greatest French directors of the past two decades, and "Summer Hours" is one of his most elegant and observant works. And it only improves on a second viewing. The film and its characters are smart, sincere and fully alive in ways we rarely have the opportunity to see.
Criterion has released "Summer Hours" on SD and on Blu-Ray. As is invariably the case, the Blu-Ray is the superior option but the SD is a fine product as well for those still holding out on high def.