The Tender Loss of Memory: “Summer Hours”

A woman who has just celebrated her 75th birthday sits in a chair of the house she has lived in for decades. Her children and grandchildren have just left the celebrations. The maid (practically a member of the family) asks how she is feeling. The woman—half-bathed in the blue twilight, half-enclosed in shadow—sighs. “There are stories that interest no one anymore . . . but there is the residue, there are the objects.” A gentle piece of chamber music plays underneath. The woman stares out into the darkness. Fade to black.

Few moments in recent cinema have moved me more than the last time we see Hélene (Edith Scob) in Olivier Assayas’s new film, Summer Hours. Mere minutes later, the film has moved ahead four months, and Hélene has died from unspecified causes. Her three children—Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—are left to decide what must happen with the family home. As time passes the children slowly reveal how much of their lives and history together infuses every object, every crevice, and every windowpane in the big, mournful house.

What is so ecstatically beautiful about Summer Hours is the careful attention to the nuances and delicacies of family interaction, no matter how much they’ve drifted apart, geographically and emotionally. Frédéric, the oldest, is an economics professor and the only child who stayed in France. Adrienne is a designer who has settled in New York, and who has managed to stay the most youthful and vital. Jérémie, the youngest, has moved to China because of his job in international commerce. Frédéric is the only one who actually wants to keep the house, and the one most invested in keeping the memories within it alive. It is implicitly understood by all how much of the family’s history will be lost with the sale of the house and the objects within it.

Assayas brilliantly employs his formalistic gifts to evoke the elegiac nature of the family’s struggle. His compositions are still lifes, evocative–in detail and emotion–of those of the late 19th Century masters, using light, shadow, and movement to breathe human existence into the inanimate. A graceful tracking shot around a desk in the Musée d’Orsay seems like Assayas’s recontextualization of the dolly around hospital statues in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Both are incarnations of human memory within the inanimate world, but whereas Apichatpong is mysterious and ebullient, Assayas is specific and mournful. His spiraling camera-moves in Frédéric’s kitchen after the funeral stick closely to the three siblings, subtly uncovering the their true feelings about the future of their mother’s estate. Adrienne even bursts into laughter as she struggles to tell her brothers that she is getting married, and that because of this, her chances of enjoying the house are diminishing. Joy in sadness, dejection in hope; these are the trials of a loving but fragile family.

The house is sold, the children and grandchildren have moved back to their respective corners of the world, and Frédéric’s teenage daughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencqueisaing) has narrowly avoided criminal charges for theft and marijuana possession. The summer has begun again, and Sylvie throws a massive party for her friends at the house before it’s re-occupied. Initially, we wonder if her friends are violently tearing down the past to make room for a more superficial and destructive future. But as the camera follows Sylvie preparing for the party, as her guests roam the hallways, we realize that the next generation is bringing the house to life again. She runs into a meadow with her boyfriend and describes to him how she and her grandmother used to pick cherries when she was a little girl. Assayas longs for the history of this family to continue in the spirit of the old house, but says that although it cannot, the grandchildren will find ways to create a new history of beautiful, tender memories. Joy in sadness, dejection in hope; such is the life of a loving and evolving family.

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