Lost in the Movies: Summer Hours

Summer Hours

[#48 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.]

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

“Poor Mole stood alone in the road, his heart torn asunder and a big sob gathering, gathering, gathering, somewhere low down inside him, to leap up to the surface presently, he knew, in passionate escape. … Meanwhile, the wafts from his old home pleaded, whispered, conjured, and finally claimed him imperiously. He dared not tarry longer within their magic circle. With a wrench that tore his very heartstrings, he set his face down the road and followed submissively in the track of the Rat, while faint, thin little smells, still dogging his retreating nose, reproached him…”
. . . . .

Summer Hours, The Decline and Fall of the French Bourgeoisie, Three Generations. Olivier Assayas’ absorbing and poignant film is first an observation of life’s fleeting moments (one might say it’s more observant than the characters who experience these moments, without really appreciating them). It is also a wailing elegy to a France crumbling away in the globalized world, letting its culture and its people dribble from its borders like sand from a smashed hourglass. And finally the movie is a portrait of one family, three generations (old, middle-aged, young) and three siblings in that middle group (brother, sister, brother), who slowly and willingly lose their country home, and with it their fragile communal identity. These two triumvirates, the generations and siblings, are each anchored in the center – chronological in the case of the age group (those in the middle of their life dominate the running time of the film), geographic in the case of the brothers and sisters (the deceased matriarch’s eldest son lives in France and tries to hold the family together, while his sister flees west to New York, and his little brother flees east to China). Alas, as is so often the case, the center does not hold.

Above all, Summer Hours is the tale of a family home, a beacon broadcasting the state of this brood's soul. The country house belonging to this Gallic clan (whose family name, oddly enough, we never quite catch) is a torch passed from generation to generation, but it does not burn brightly for all time. In the beginning, it is a wan flame threatening to go out; eventually, it seems to have been extinguished altogether, the steam hissing in the rains of time and distance. Then, briefly in the end, it flickers back to life again, the embers glowing luminously for what we know will be the last time. Perhaps its fuel is the spirit of the absent patriarch, long deceased, an uncle rather than a father, with whom Hélène (Edith Scob) may have had an incestuous affair. He was a painter, and his work and legacy overhang everything: the emotional scars passed down to his grand-nieces and nephews, the economic decisions about how to sell and split up his home, artworks, and possessions, the half-remembered anecdotes passed down to his grandchildren, who are brief witnesses to a past evaporating before their eyes.

Having seen a trailer for this movie not long ago, in which the familial tensions and outbursts were heightened and exaggerated, I was surprised to discover that all in fact does not end in turmoil. There are fissures and clashes to be sure. Youngest brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and oldest brother, the sensitive Frédéric (Charles Berling), snap at one another in front of a lawyer, who barely raises an eyebrow. Gathering after the funeral, Frédéric proposes (nay, assumes) that they will keep their home and as Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie gently disabuse him of this notion, we can see that he is crushed. Late in the movie, between auctions and assessments and meetings with lawyers and appointments with the government, Frédéric must rush off to a police station, bailing his daughter out for petty theft and possession of hashish. When we met her in the opening scenes, she was still a loping, gangly, girly preteen; by now she's sporting a leather jacket, with an attitude to match. Nothing stays the same.

And yet, all of this minor discord and dysfunction is quite normal, a fact which the characters - for all their fatigue and frustration - never forget. There are no teary goodbyes, no ferocious fights, no desperate and morbid self-analyses. Instead, they quietly go their separate ways, do what must be done, and bid their roots ado. Fitzgerald be damned, they've broken their ties to the past, selling off their cherished objects and talismans one by one, bartering their slices of the famed uncle's cultural inheritance, moving forward until the future envelopes them and they are selling sneakers in Peking, vacationing in Bali, designing kooky knicknacks in Manhattan, or lingering behind to brood in melancholy Paris. Having invoked a couple Brits and an American to set the scene, let us now quote an Yankee Englishman, himself an exile who know something about the confused homesickness of modernity: "This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper."

Ultimately, however, this is not the way Assayas' world ends, despite the fact that we take our warmly, wearily cynical leave of Frédéric and his wife in a museum cafeteria, on a note of mordant mirth. Their family furniture displayed before an indifferent public in the Musée d'Orsay, all traces of their tactile history finally obliterated by a coat of prestige, it suddenly seems an awful bother to care about anything at all, and so the couple burst into spontaneous, bitter laughter. (Incidentally, this is the second in a series of French films sponsored by that famous museum, the first being Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon; both films utilize the institution to coolly demonstrate the distance between modern life and the warmth of the past - this is especially true of Summer Hours.) No, Assayas does not conclude with this bittersweet coda, nor with the mournful visit of the family maid to the abandoned home, peeking in through the locked windows; instead Summer Hours closes by embracing the refreshing life-force of youth. The grandchildren are throwing a party for a hundred or so friends at the soon-to-be-sold estate, and at first glance, this could seem a depressing climax. Here we have kids and booze and pop music infiltrating these sacred grounds, more familiar with uncorked bottles of wine, aching wisps of cello and harpsichord in the air, and quiet, reflective evenings surrounded by old furniture and half-finished sketches.

Instead, the party seems to bring the house alive for the first time in the movie. Even when it was first presented, we knew the house was doomed, past its prime. The family seemed almost like ghosts as they enjoyed their last summer day in this palace of their youth. Here, stripped bare, facing the final liquidation of its familial ties, this place finally feels lived-in. Throughout the movie the camera has been restlessly on the move, gracefully twirling around its characters and tracing paths that they could not keep up with. Now, our view moves in tandem with these energetic young bodies, following them instead of racing ahead. The pent-up vigor has been given an outlet and it overflows until the grounds glow. In their enthusiastic naivitee, the teenagers awaken the latent sense of discovery, romance, and adventure that must have roamed the halls and gardens back when the famous uncle mused over his art, when Hélène's youth bloomed in the summer breeze, when Frédéric dreamed that his magic circle would never be punctured. Now it is the foolish youths who lead us simultaneously into the past and the future, on an Indian summer day when hope and nostalgia intermingle to form a uniquely restless tranquility. Briefly consider that we imagined the onset of autumn, that the prospect of change and decline need no longer frighten us, having discovered that moment which lasts forever.
. . . . .

"As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly on their faces, and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness."


• • •
All quotes from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens; The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; and "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot.

Previous entries: The Hurt Locker and Still Life

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