L'Heure d'été (Summer Hours) 2008 Musée d’Orsay France (102 minutes) directed and written by Olivier Assayas.
The words ‘summer hours’ would not be out of place on a sign in a holiday resort, but as a film title it says nothing about this interesting story and does nothing to connect its characters.
The French title, L'Heure d'été, translates roughly as ‘the summer moment’ or ‘a slice of summer’: it is a ‘slice of summer,’ or flavors of that slice, which provides the sentimental attachment that the main characters have to a rustic, art-filled country house an hour from Paris.
Three siblings, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) Marly, spent their summer holidays at the house as children and enjoy bringing their own families to visit in the summer, particularly Frédéric, the eldest.
Their mother, Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob), a widow, lives in the house once owned by her uncle and the love of her life, a fictional famous painter Paul Berthier. It is filled with paintings and art objects that Paul collected, as well as Hélène’s memories of the sunniest moments of her life.
The film opens with a ‘slice of summer’: Hélène’s children and grandchildren visit her to celebrate her 75th birthday on a summer afternoon. Frédéric’s daughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and son, Pierre (Emile Berling), lead the smaller children and several dogs down paths through a small garden to play in an orchard behind the house. Afterward, a happy, prosperous family sits down to lunch on the patio.
Hélène has maintained the house in homage to her uncle since his death in 1972, kept his housekeeper, Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), and moved there since her husband’s death. But she feels that when she will die, most of the history and secrets that make it special will die with her and it will be time to sell the house and its contents to benefit her children and their families. It will be time for the family to move on.
She tries to bring up the topic alone with Frédéric after lunch. She takes him aside to point out sentimental items she wants him to have, as well as several valuable pieces of furniture, and she shows him an inventory she has prepared.
Frédéric makes clear that he has no interest discussing her death. He cherishes the safety, security and warm feeling the house gives and guarantees Hélène that they will keep it and its contents just as they always were, maintained by Éloise to pass on to their own children and children’s children.
But as his mother knew, this turns out to be an unexamined sentiment on Frédéric’s part when these issues must be resolved after Hélène dies nine months later.
‘It’s their childhoods they love,’ she had tried to tell Frédéric. ‘When they’re adults they’ll have better things to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another time.’
Frédéric is an academic economist who lives in Paris with his wife, Lisa (Dominique Reymond), who also works, and their two teenage children Sylvie and Pierre.
Adrienne, an industrial designer who lives and works in New York, has pleasant childhood memories but spends little time in France. After she marries her American boy friend James (Kyle Eastwood), she expects to spend vacation time in his native Colorado.
Jérémie is an entrepreneur based in the Far East, who just signed a five-year deal to relocate to Beijing with his wife, Angela (Valérie Bonneton), and their three young children.
The family dynamic of how the three siblings and their spouses work out what to do with their mother’s house and the artwork and these actors’ outstanding ensemble performances gives the story a range, depth and color that draw a viewer in and make it compelling. Olivier Assayas’ eye enhances the ensemble work because he tends to include in his shots those who have just spoken or who speak little, but participate every bit as much with facial expressions and body language, such as the brothers’ spouses.
Moments aside are nuanced similarly, as we see in a story about a vase. One of a pair of valuable Antonin Daum vases disappeared many years before; Hélène always said that Éloise the housekeeper broke it and just refused to admit it. Éloise averred that she never liked the vase, but did not know what happened to it and did not break it. She always preferred a homely glass vase she kept under the sink in the scullery.
When art experts and appraisers come through the house after Hélène’s death, Frédéric tells Éloise to take anything she would like of Hélène’s to remember her by—‘It’s the least we can do.’
‘There’s a vase with big green bubbles. I can keep flowers in it and think of her,’ Éloise tells Frédéric. She takes the smaller and homelier mate of the vase she usually used, carefully wrapping it to take home with her.
Frédéric smiles. An appraiser, dismissive of the Daum vase, earlier set these two vases aside as rare, museum-quality pieces made by Félix Bracquemond, circa 1880.
On her way home, Éloise showed the vase to her nephew (Christian Lucas): ‘He said to choose anything. I couldn’t take advantage. I took something ordinary. What would I do with something valuable?’
Mais ou sont les neiges—or in this instance, slices of summer—d’antan? (with apologies to François Villon). Hélène’s yesteryear and the siblings’ golden childhoods are memories. But Sylvie’s summertime runs through this tapestry like a bright-colored thread.
Alice de Lencquesaing’s Sylvie does not say much, but Assayas’ camera likes her and tells the viewer to pay attention to her. She is a young actor from a French acting family who seems to know what she is doing, and she has a screen presence. (She plays a similar mature teen sibling in Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2009 film Le père de mes enfants, in which the père of the title is her actual father, the actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing.)
Sylvie and the children run down the garden path at the beginning of the film. At the end of the film, throwing a party at the house for her friends before a new owner takes it over, Sylvie shows a boyfriend where her grandmother stood picking cherries when her great uncle painted a picture of Hélène as a girl. It will be gone soon, she says wistfully; then they climb a wall and make their way back across a meadow to their friends and the summer party.
Theatrical trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikERoS8Tvss