The film focuses on three siblings who must decide (as we all must at some point — if we live in a Chekhov play) what to do with the luxurious family estate after the death of the matriarch. The trio, who live scattered across the globe and rarely gather together, make the trip for their mother’s birthday and, soon after, for her death.
The siblings are divided by more than just miles (or, rather, kilometres). Juliette Binoche plays the rather fabulous sister, a designer living in New York with her latest boyfriend. Her younger brother (Jeremie Renier) manufactures tennis shoes in China. These two have already left the home and the country and debate the need to maintain ties to a place to which they never plan to return. Only the devoted middle brother (Charles Berling), who is the dutiful family man, wants to keep the family home for his children and for future generations of the family.
It is this simple family discussion that makes up the bulk of the film. Under Assayas’ skillful hand, the potentially dry conversation becomes evocative on many levels eliciting questions of patriotism, home, and family. Similarly, the film is by no means sentimental. It is a quiet and unassuming movie, yet the passing of the family home manages to touch on everything from globalization to the thin ties of family and the fading of the grand lifestyle of a French artiste.
Why the emphasis on the life of the artist? Summer Hours was commissioned to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. To that end, Assayas has chosen to fill the ancestral family home with art and artifacts collected and created by their great uncle, who was both a renowned artist and a source of mystery to the family. You see, no one is quite sure of the precise relationship between their mother and their great uncle. After much discussion among the siblings, the art ends up, appropriately enough, at the Musee D’Orsay. But any overarching message about the civic role of museums is delivered subtly without disrupting the flow of the story.
Directed by almost anyone else, perhaps excluding Sam Raimi, this film would be a tedious study of estate law and family strife. Instead it glows under Assayas’ direction. For the devotee or the novice Assayas fan, the film is a must see.
For the stalwart and, perhaps, well-caffeinated Assayas fan, his latest work, Carlos, a five-hour long epic biopic based on the life of Carlos the Jackal, plays Saturday, Oct. 23 at 6:30pm and again on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 3pm.