Saturday, November 22, 2008

L'Heure d'été

L'Heure d'été (Summer Hours) is the second in a series of films produced by Musee d'Orsay, after Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge. In the film two brothers and a sister witness the disappearance of their childhood memories when they must relinquish the family belongings to ensure their deceased mother’s succession.

The film was known under the working titles Souvenirs du Valois and Printemps Passé

Principal photography began in Paris on June 4th and was completed Friday July 27, 2007.

The film received its United States premiere at the 46th New York Film Festival on October 1st, 2008 in New York.

This small, impeccably civilised drama of familial inheritance recalls the late great works of master miniaturist Claude Sautet.

A beloved matriarch dies, leaving her three adult children to argue over the valuable collection of paintings and furniture she has bequeathed to them. The oldest brother (Charles Berling) clings to the old house and the two Corots that will have to be sold, while his far-flung siblings (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier) have stronger attachments to their careers in America and Asia respectively.

The problems of an haut-bourgeois family might seem trivial in world terms, but Olivier Assayas's script asks deeper questions about ownership and the public purpose of art. Berling, as the melancholy nostalgist standing, Canute-like, before the waves of change, is especially good.

Summer Hours (aka L'Heure d'été) a quiet, carefully observed movie by writer-director Olivier Assayas, a former Cahiers du cinéma critic. He's returned to the subtle French film of bourgeois life once vilified by the Cahiers critics who became movie-makers as the Nouvelle Vague. The great Edith Scob plays Hélène, a gracious, egocentric septuagenarian who has worshipped her uncle, a moderately distinguished figurative artist, and turned his fading country house into a shrine. Along the way, she has looked down on her late husband, a heating engineer, and consistently undermined the confidence of her three children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), a professor of economics in Paris, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a business executive working in China, and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer living in New York.

The movie carefully calibrates the family's emotional reactions to Hélène in her lifetime and then to her death, burial and the handling of her estate. Should they turn her house into a museum celebrating their great uncle? Or should they sell it off, along with a few exquisite pieces of Modernist furniture, a pair of Corots and some lesser works? The story is satisfactorily resolved, with an unexpected end in which Hélène's grandchildren make an ironic use of her former home. All her possessions in the film were lent by the Musée d'Orsay.

Olivier Assayas's new film is not a radical departure from his previous work, but the differences are nonetheless striking. It has a mature look and feel, made by an artist completely at ease with the medium. Without striving for effect, Assayas is happy to let the material speak for itself. And what a magnificent achievement it is. L'Heure d'été deals with ideas of tradition and family heritage, using a house and a garden as a metaphor for cultural memory.

Incisively written, superbly acted by some of France's finest performers and boasting a delicately understated approach to the subject matter, Assayas's new film moves effortlessly through its narrative with all the grace of Renoir at the height of his powers.

Hélène (Edith Scob) lives in a rambling mansion full of art: Corot landscapes, Redon panels, a variety of rare and valuable objects, and her own uncle's paintings. On her seventy-fifth birthday, her three grown children arrive to celebrate the happy milestone. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an economist. The younger son, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier, also in this year's Le Silence de Lorna), has relocated to Shanghai with his family, where he manufactures running shoes. And finally, there is the dark and brooding Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a successful designer who now lives in New York.

Assayas assembles this group and then delicately begins to explore them as individuals. Events force Hélène's children to make a series of decisions that have everything to do with their shared sense of the past. What to do with all of these memories and objects that define them and in a sense create their identity? Can this all be discarded? What at first appears to be a simple decision that they make together turns into something much thornier. As unexpected emotions surface among the siblings, they discover that they have changed, and now aspire to different things. How these tensions are resolved is the subject of this intimate drama. L'Heure d'été is a work of great lyrical power, and Assayas shows an extraordinary control of place and character, bringing the two into a beautiful harmony.

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