Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

Summer Hours
(L’heure d’été)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Juliette Binoche (Adrienne), Charles Berling (Frédéric), Jérémie Renier (Jérémie), Edith Scob (Hélène), Dominique Reymond (Lisa), Valérie Bonneton (Angela), Isabelle Sadoyan (Éloïse), Kyle Eastwood (James), Alice de Lencquesaing (Sylvie), Emile Berling (Pierre), Jean-Baptiste Malartre (Michel Waldemar), Gilles Arbona (Maître Lambert)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2008
Country: France
Summer Hours Criterion Collection DVD
Summer HoursDeceptively simple and unassuming, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) is a gently moving exploration of a family in transition. The film opens during a rare gathering at the family’s idyllic summer cottage in the woods outside of Paris, a place of such charm and tranquility that it seems almost unreal, yet it has become such an assumed part of the family that its permanence is taken for granted. Assayas first gives us shots of children running along forested paths and playing in the flowers, thus establishing first and foremost that this is a place of childhood memory and experience, far removed from the concrete and glass urban spaces where their parents live and work.

The main characters are a trio of siblings: the eldest brother, Frédéric (Charles Berling), who is the only one who still lives in France, while the others are spread across the world; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), the middle sister, is an art designer who lives in New York and works for a Japanese department store; and the youngest brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who runs a business in Beijing. They have all gathered at the family home to celebrate the 75th birthday of their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), who lives there and functions as the last link between the older and the newer generations. The house once belonged to her uncle, a famous painter who rubbed elbows with other great artists of the early 20th century, thus it is filled with works of art and furniture that is sought by collectors, including the Musée d’Orsay. Like the house itself, this art is such a part of the family that its very existence is taken for granted, which is why Hélène, who senses that her time may be short despite her outwardly healthy appearance, wants desperately to talk with Frédéric about what will become of it all once she is gone.

That question forms the crux of the rest of the film, which unfolds in a series of vignettes that follow the siblings as they decide what to do with their family heritage once they become the “eldest” generation. Because he is the oldest and because he still lives in France, Frédéric wants to keep the house and its holdings, not so much because he plans to use it, but because it is a part of his memory, and to entrust it to others would mean to give up a part of himself. Adrienne and Jérémie are more practical, especially since they both live in other countries and feel more disconnected from both their familial and cultural histories; the memory is still there, but it’s less intense and therefore less intertwined with the physical components of their past.

Meanwhile, life, as it always does, goes on, as Frédéric deals with his teenage daughter’s delinquency, Adrienne prepares to get remarried after a disastrous first marriage, and Jérémie prepares for a new business enterprise in Hong Kong. Thus, Assayas sets up a visual and thematic parallel that emphasizes the passage of time, with the siblings’ lives racing forward while their family home, so serene and unchanging, remains a bulwark against the passing of the age, even as it is emptied of its contents and revealed to be more dilapidated and in need of repair than we first realized. Assayas keeps the film deliberately rooted in the moment (which is why we learn little about the characters’ backgrounds except in passing), so that when there is an intrusion of history, a reminder of the ravages of time, it is quite stunning.

In Summer Hours, Assayas, who has been writing and directing for close to three decades now in both film and television, demonstrates the kind of care and assurance that comes only with time and experience. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the film does not press its points or force its ideas, but rather unfolds slowly and gently, drawing us into the lives of its characters, none of whom are heroic or terrible or even all that unique. Assayas trusts that the audience will find points of identification with each sibling, with their very ordinariness being the key to their appeal. Anyone who has ever had to let go of a family heirloom or see a familial home sold to someone else or felt disconnected from his or her kin will find much to appreciate in Summer Hours, which manages a sense of genuine poignancy that never becomes sticky or sentimental. Assayas sees the story through the lens of a realist, yet can’t help but give it a slightly sun-dappled glow that reminds us of how we should cherish our memories because they can never be sold, or auctioned, or repossessed. They are ours.

Summer Hours Criterion Collection DVD
Summer Hours is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • New video interview with writer/director Olivier Assayas
  • Making-of documentary
  • Inventory, a documentary by Olivier Gonard
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 20, 2010

    Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer, which was taken from an interpositive print, was supervised by director Olivier Assayas and approved by Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier. The resulting image is quite beautiful, striking in its gorgeous colors (note the intensity of the greens) and particularly in its naturalistic detail; you can very nearly feel the sunlight warming the screen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio masters using Pro Tools HD, is likewise excellent. While most of the film is dialogue driven, the surround channels are used subtly and effectively for environmental sounds and also to embellish the touching musical score.
    In lieu of an audio commentary, we have a lengthy video interview with writer/director Olivier Assayas, who discusses his career and his work on Summer Hours. Assayas also appears in a half-hour making-of documentary that also features interviews with actors Charles Berling and Juliette Binoche and plenty of footage of the cast and crew during production. Finally, the disc includes Inventory, a 50-minute documentary by Olivier Gonard that looks at the Musée d’Orsay and the film’s approach to patrimony--the “objects that are handed down.”

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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