Summer Hours is an extremely French film that seems to have been made in direct reaction to Boarding Gate, its predecessor. After having gone completely international, Olivier Assayas has taken advantage of a commission by the Musée d’Orsay (an exemplary museum of 19th-century art) to explore territory that’s close to home. Boarding Gate (07) was his version of Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, with an American actor (Michael Madsen), an Italian star (Asia Argento), Hong Kong, and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: arty deterritorialization pushed to the extreme. With Summer Hours, the movement is inverted. Assayas returns to the local, to family, and to a France reminiscent of the one found in Les Destinées sentimentales (00).
But if the earlier film was a sumptuous adaptation of a thick bourgeois novel by Jacques Chardonne, Summer Hours is a light novella, with a hint of the nouveau roman in its relationship to inanimate things. And it takes care to remain light, to avoid emphasis and overt pathos. That is the film’s gamble. It refuses to weigh itself down while handling rather weighty material (specifically the question of heritage, a French specialty) and staying grounded in a concern as essential as it is uncomfortable: how to live with the vestiges of the past?
As Truffaut’s Madame Jouve puts it at the start of The Woman Next Door: a house can be the main character of a story. That’s also the case here, and it’s the film’s most striking achievement. Assayas succeeds at making this house live so well that we have the impression that it watches its inhabitants as they abandon it. Its resident will die, then its inheritors will sell it. Through the sheer grace of his mise en scène, Assayas gives us the point of view of this soon-to-be deserted place: it’s a perspective of very sweet indifference, a sadness tinged with fatalism.
In achieving this tour de force, Bergman’s disciple can be proud of himself. How magnificently he films a Félix Bracquemond vase or the Louis Majorelle furniture placed on display at the Musée d’Orsay. The objects themselves seem to admonish the characters for their betrayal and brutality. The inheritors believe they are contemplating them for the last time when in fact they are the ones who are being looked at reproachfully. One recalls the words of Paul Valéry that André Malraux had engraved in gold letters on the front of the Palais de Chaillot: “It depends on those who pass/ Whether I am tomb or treasure/Whether I speak or am silent/The choice is yours alone/Friend, do not enter without desire.”
Is Summer Hours an autobiographical film? Yes, but not in the way one might suppose. Nothing is more universal than stories of families and their succession, and it is uncertain whether Assayas drew on his own personal reservoir in order to tackle these themes. On the other hand, it’s evident that he’s also dealing with his own position as a filmmaker: shared—hyphenated, even—between the local and the global, between the experimental rupture of his chosen visionaries (Kenneth Anger, Guy Debord) and a more classical French cinema, between the Bergman of Persona and of Fanny and Alexander. At the point where these paths intersect, Assayas claims the freedom to borrow from one and then the other and to grant himself the right to such alternation. In the family of Summer Hours, the sister (Juliette Binoche) lives in New York, one brother (Jérémie Renier) lives in China, and another (Charles Berling) lives in Paris—the whole forms a fragmented portrait of the filmmaker as a globalized artist.
All that remains to be said is that Summer Hours is Assayas’s best film set on home turf—the one that best puts things in perspective and loudly proclaims that one must know how to shed dead skin to go on living. And it makes perfect sense that for this beautiful exercise in seeing patrimony with absolute clarity Assayas invokes, both at the beginning (the Edenic house of a painter) and at the end (youth and its imperious desire, at water’s edge), the supreme figure of French cinema: none other than Jean Renoir.