Summer film 10: Summer hours (2008)

I had intended to choose thirty summer films but somehow I like the idea of ten much more and so this is the final film in my selection. Like quite a few in my list, Olivier Assayas’ film is actually quite simple in terms of the story. The film opens with Hélène’s (played by Edith Scob) 75th birthday which she is celebrating at her house in the country with her three children and their families. They have not seen each other for some time and only one of them, Frédéric (Charles Berling) lives in France. During the afternoon, Hélène takes him aside to discuss what to do with the house and its contents after her death. The house belonged to her uncle, an artist, and is filled with paintings, furniture and other items of artistic value. She tells him what to keep and what to sell or bequeath. Frédéric is adamant that the collection will remain intact and that the house will not be sold and that she will be with them for a long time yet but Hélène is unconvinced.

In the next scene, we learn that Hélène has died and decisions over the estate are being made. To Frédéric’s surprise, his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rennier) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) want to sell everything and divide it. They no longer live in France and need the money. And so we see how the works of art are dispersed and how the house is emptied. It’s a theme familiar from Louis Malle’s Milou en mai about the loss of the matriarch and how monetary concerns come before personal attachments. This has the added interest of asking about the nature of art, about why we collect and what the role of a collector should be. Is it right to keep works of art just for private contemplation or should they be displayed in museums instead? What was the relationship between Hélène and her uncle? Hélène kept the house just as it was in his lifetime, almost as kind of shrine but at the end we see Frédéric’s daughter using the empty house as a party spot and saying farewell to a place where she will never return. One of the most touching aspects concerns Hélène’s long-term housekeeper Eloise. What will happen to her after the house is sold? Should she receive something for her loyalty? It’s very understated and poignant.

There’s no false sentimentality here. We see the happy times at the beginning and also the pain of losing everything we have known. People simply discuss and accept that decisions have to be made. We cannot hold onto the past, it slips through our fingers just like those summer hours. All we can hope for is to create some kind of meaning in the present and hope that others will find something to remember us by.



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