Criterion Reconsidered: Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours

More gracefully and more effortlessly than any film I’ve seen, Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, newly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, captures the spiritual tug-of-war between France’s formidable aesthetic tradition and France’s place in a networked world economy.  Three siblings deliberate the fate of their inheritance – not money, but objet d’art in a house that once belonged to a legendary great uncle, whose stature represents not just family ancestry, but the legacy of a fading nation.  The eldest sibling (played by Charles Berling) falls to the inertia of tradition, arguing to preserve the treasures as-is out of respect for family, though he can’t seem to form a credible argument why.  The younger siblings are pulled east and west; a brother (Jérémie Renier) and his young family are settled in China, and a sister (Juliette Binoche) is getting married in the United States.  Like family, culture can’t be liquidated, nor can it be easily discarded.  Summer Hours portrays the gentle friction that surfaces above cataclysmic cultural transformation: the casual conversations that glide over long-brewing ruptures, the hesitations that mask the deepest regret.

But what does that gentle friction feel like?

Like the graceful mundaneness of little gestures and glances.  The siblings and their spouses convene to discuss the future of their inheritance.  Or to not discuss.  Nobody wants to confront each other, let alone argue.  We witness not the venting of frustrations, but characters peeling apples, setting tables, preparing food, sipping wine.  Death may bring emotional discontinuity, but the siblings are too mature to break the rhythm of everyday life, whose momentum had been breaking them apart, but now provides a chance for them to intersect again, if only for a moment.  Like Jérémie Renier’s jet-lagged eyes, which nervously never seem able to stay on his older brothers’ for more than a second at a time, conflict is diverted out of respect for living.  The only theatrics at play are the gentle clamor of everyday life.

Like sunlight peering into a dusty home, preserved as-is since the death of its final owner.  Appraisers and museum representatives stroll past the house’s treasures, their eyes agape at the relics of cultural history and the relics of an old friend, now passed.  Eric Gautier’s camera strolls by as well, taking in each slice of light peeking through the old windows, illuminating old books and older desks, bringing warmth into a house that has for weeks not been a home.  In the background of each frame are paintings, vases, decorations – in shimmering view in Criterion’s blu-ray disc – that stand witness to the years past, as well as the lived nature of art: that a vase once held flowers and an antique cabinet once stored children’s toys.

Like the tired gaze of the old housekeeper Eloise, who returns to the house after the paintings have been bubble-wrapped and hauled away.  Eloise walks by the locked house, peering through the windows to soak up the remnants of a house emptied out.  As the sunlight strikes her face through the trees, she comes to life as the lone survivor of a Renoir painting, a flâneuse at a Montmarte soiree returning to the setting of those glory days.

Like teenagers dancing in the final hours of summer.  With the parents away, cousins use the old house for one last house party.  Gautier follows the teens through the old corridors in breathtaking long takes.  Friends cross paths and hip-hop blasts.  The music switches to a poppy indie rock and the girls shimmy away.  As the sun starts to set we realize that these moments in the film’s eloquent final scene are not of teens who forsake the past with their boomboxes and beer.  No, they, unlike their jaded parents, are the only ones left who still live this house rather than preserve or sanctify it.  They party just as their great great uncle did there a century earlier.  Their jubilant faces match the youthful statues in the yard.  Nostalgia is for those coping with loss.  For the young, the final sunset is for dancing.

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