Saturday, August 07, 2010

L'Heure d'été / Summer Hours

Kesähetket / Sommarminnen. FR (c) 2008 MK2 / France 2. P: Charles Gillibert, Marin Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz. D+SC: Olivier Assayas. DP: Eric Gautier - 1,85. In collaboration with la Musée d'Orsay. Set Decoration: Sandrine Mauvezin. S: Nicolas Cantin, Olivier Goinard. ED: Luc Barnier. CAST: Charles Berling (Frédéric Marly), Juliette Binoche (Adrienne Marly, la sœur cadette de Frédéric, designer aux États-Unis), Jérémie Rénier (Jérémie Marly, le frère cadet de Frédéric, manager chez Puma en Chine), Édith Scob (Hélène Berthier, la mère dont on célèbre les 75 ans), Dominique Reymond (Lisa Marly, la femme de Frédéric), Valérie Bonneton (Angela Marly, la femme de Jérémie), Isabelle Sadoyan (Éloïse, la fidèle cuisinière), Alice de Lencquesaing (Sylvie Marly, la fille de Frédéric et Lisa), Emile Berling (Pierre Marly, le fils de Frédéric et Lisa, le cadet de Sylvie), Kyle Eastwood (James, l'ami américain d'Adrienne). 102 min. Released by Cinema Mondo (9 July 2010) with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Outi Kainulainen / Sylva Lönnberg. Viewed at Maxim 2, Helsinki, 7 August 2010

Olivier Assayas has created a film about the disintegration of a middle-class family. Where Ozu portrayed disintegration of families because of urbanization, the Assayas story is related to globalization. Sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) moves to New York, and brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) to Peking. Only Frédéric (Charles Berling) stays in France.

Assayas is in great form, and L'Heure d'été has been written and directed in an unobtrusive manner of classical psychological realism. It is also a work of visual realism, with the surrounding nature, the city, and the family house providing solid environments for the family story. It starts with Hélène (Edith Scob) celebrating her 75th birthday, aware of her imminent death.

Assayas and his excellent actors are able to create a deeply moving story without melodrama but also without artificial distancing effects. I have seen this film now only once but I know that there are important truths involved that require repeated viewings to be fully appreciated. One of them might be that closest relatives presume they know each other well but they may have crucial blind spots.

As Kent Jones states in his essay quoted below the film succeeds very well in expressing the avoidance of conflict. I would state this more positively than Jones: these people love and respect each other, and they treasure their family spirit so much that they don't want to risk it because of mundane matters. I think a hidden agenda is that each of them would rather give up on all external demands rather than risk hurting any among them. If Frédéric would more passionately defend the idea of keeping the house, the others would give up on their wishes. But even Frédéric alone cannot commit himself so totally, and this is something that Hélène has already foreseen.

The most moving shot of the film is where we see the back of Frédéric sitting on the bed in a dark room after the three have without conflict mutually come to the agreement that the house must be sold. He denies he's crying. Maybe outwardly not but inwardly certainly, and not because the house will be lost, but because this is the end of the family. Without Hélène and the family the house and its artworks lose their meaning.

Avoidance of conflict means avoidance of drama, and Assayas succeeds in conveying deep feelings without conventional drama.

L'Heure d'été is an important film on design, produced in collaboration with la Musée d'Orsay. The artists of the real design objects are credited many times in the dialogue and repeated in the final credits but I could not find a list of their names in internet sources. There is documentary and realistic value in the account of what happens to a dissolving family which owns valuable paintings and artworks.

There is an excellent essay by Kent Jones on the Criterion website sampled beyond the jump break. 20 August 2010: after the essay excerpt some artworks identified from the L'Heure d'été pressbook, courtesy Cinema Mondo

"Like Late August, Early September, Summer Hours (an impres­sionistic translation of the original French title, L’heure d’été) takes place within the universe of the French middle class, where the action is conducted in living rooms and across bistro tabletops. The story may be set in Paris and the French countryside, but the characters live at far-flung emotional and geographic distances from one another. Charles Berling’s Frédéric, the most dutiful of three adult siblings in a family with a high artistic pedigree, is the only one who lives on French soil. His prickly sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), works as a designer for a Japanese department store in Manhattan, and his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier), has seized an economic opportunity by relocating himself and his family to Beijing. Which means that the family gatherings composing the bulk of the action are extraordinary events in the everyday lives of those who attend them. The venerable family house, inhabited by the delicately worried, aging matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob), and the fragility and ultimate impermanence of family ties act as opposing, yet oddly complimentary, forces in this deeply personal and quietly devastating film, which I doubt Olivier could have made before his own mother’s passing in 2007.

We learn of Hélène’s death not with a sudden collapse or an emergency phone call but with a transition from her sitting alone to Frédéric rushing from one task to another, before arriving at the office of a cemetery director to discuss the details of his mother’s burial. As is the case for all of us, the flow of life never halts, something that is understood on every level of this film: in the sense of weather and times of day; in the close attention paid to generational differences
of perspective (and, through the beautifully drawn char­acter of Isabelle Sadoyan’s Éloise, the old family housekeeper, differences of class); in the frank acknowledgment of economic verities; in the arc of the narrative, where a family house is sold off and the treasured objects within it become pieces on display in the Musée d’Orsay (like Irma Vep, Summer Hours was expanded from an aborted omnibus project, this one composed of short films by various filmmakers set in the museum; the other films bearing traces of this project are Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day); and in the touchy, loaded interactions between the siblings and their spouses.

For me, the most remarkable scene in the film is the family gathering where it is decided that the house will be sold. The orchestration of movement and emotional crosscurrents is every bit as impressive as in Irma Vep’s tour de force party gathering, but the perceptions are even keener. Frédéric begins the conversation by assuming that the house will stay in the family, and slowly, unassumingly, without any overt disagreement, Jérémie and Adrienne steer things in the other direction. No one actually states their point of view until they have to. Fear of conflict is a central fact of life for most people, and I don’t know of another film that captures it as well. What makes this scene even more remarkable is the importance of Lisa (Dominique Reymond) and Angela (Valérie Bonneton), the wives of Frédéric and Jérémie and the two characters who say the least, as they encourage or offer solidarity with their husbands through glances, shifts in posture, movements toward or away from the area of conflict. Another key moment comes when Adrienne announces that she’s planning to marry her boyfriend in New York, prompting a round of kidding from her siblings about her disastrous first marriage. What is so poignantly true here is the relief that comes with the break in tension, the willingness of all parties to obliterate, for one final moment, the cold realities of the situation.

Olivier’s position in relation to his characters is stoically removed yet lovingly attentive to their vanities, idiosyn­crasies, and reserves of goodwill, as he takes them through the family discussions and then the legal verifications, assessments, and presentations by which the paintings and furniture in Hélène’s house become artworks on display in the museum. There’s a vital scene early in the film in which the birdlike Hélène patiently explains to a childishly disbelieving Frédéric that she’s going to die sooner rather than later. It’s difficult to think of many other movies that have been as frank about the excruciating conflict between maintaining the memory of the past and making way for the future. The house is sold, as Hélène knew it would be; the events that occurred within its walls are consigned to legend or forgotten altogether; the objects are either handed down, thrown away (including, most movingly of all, a brand-new telephone), sold, or turned over to posterity; and the passing of time provokes anxiety and regret, which finally give way to a measure of peace.

As I write this, Olivier Assayas has just finished a remarkable three-part film about the terrorist Carlos—another shift in mood, another side of contemporary history. He is also glorying in the recent birth of his first child. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, his films continue to surprise me, stir me, and help to refine my vision of the ever-expanding world. I know I’m not alone." 

Smoked glass vase with colored claw feet (1879)
Oblong vase in white glass with five green bubbles (1879)
Félix Bracquemond - Lent by Mrs. Jundt
Chemin de Sèvres, view overlooking Paris (1855)
Brittany Landscape, a fence in the shade of large trees (1845)
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot - Musée du Louvre
Orchid desk (1905)
Large half-moon window display case in mahogany and gilded bronze (1905)
Louis Majorelle - Lent by the Musée d’Orsay
Domecy Decoration (1900 - 1901)
Odilon Redon - Musée d’Orsay
«Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot»
Edgar Dégas - Original in Musée d’Orsay
Armoire with three panels (1904)
Josef Hoffmann - Lent by Galerie Historismus
Pair of billet vases «Atelier d’Auteuil» (1872 - 1881)
Lent by Mr. Laurens d’Albis

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