A chamber piece resolutely devoid of flash and glitter, “Summer Hours” isn’t a film one would have anticipated from the director of such disparate provocations as “Irma Vep,” “Clean,” Demonlover” and “Boarding Gate.” Then again, Olivier Assayas’ new release is subtly provocative in its own right. Its willingness to lay out ideas about art and life in the age of globalization makes it his biggest dare yet. What distinguishes this Assayas movie from the others is the manner with which it sustains an unspoiled blend of the intimately emotional with the unequivocally intellectual. The cumulative strengths of “Summer Hours” as a philosophic elegy and a generational saga are powerful enough to throw everything else Assayas has done in illuminated relief.
The movie’s first summer dream is an idyllic one, with children playing on the grounds of an old country house whose widowed owner Hélène (Edith Scob) is celebrating her 75th birthday with her brood of three accomplished 40-something offspring. The light surrounding the party is festive and bright, but shadows seep in from the edges. Hélène knows — or, at least, suspects — that this may be her last birthday, and she’s intent on making sure the house’s 19th century art treasures, most of which (lithographs, glassware, furniture, original Corot paintings) belonged to her distinguished uncle, will be cared for in her absence.
Eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economics professor, regards each artifact with the mildest impatience. He’s taking it for granted that the house and its contents will always be in the family, no matter what happens to his mother. But it becomes all too clear, after Hélène’s death, just how perishable those dreams are. His sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a fashion designer with more at stake in America and Japan than in France, while younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) chooses to raise his family close to his shoe business in China. It’s left to Frédéric, the only one staying close to home, to decide what to do with Hélène’s stuff, and what he does is bring in appraisers and auctioneers to, piece by piece, yard by yard, disperse a rich family legacy.
Assayas clearly shares Frédéric’s disdain for the economic forces that erode collective memories and transform art into commodity. But there’s nothing programmatic or (obviously) ideological in his approach. He doesn’t condemn Frédéric’s sibs for the life choices they make any more than he chastises their own children for all but bypassing the craftsmanship of their ancestors. Indeed, the writer/director’s melancholy resignation with culture’s casual dismantling arouses far deeper emotions than could be summoned with a more open attack on corporate culture; though a few zingers are fired here and there by Frédéric and Adrienne, mostly at Jérémie’s labor practices. But even they yield to what’s become the mantra of 21st century progress: It is what it is and what can you do, anyway? Making a movie about it all seems to be one answer — and Assayas has made one of the most haunting, probing, and (in the end) tentatively hopeful one could possibly imagine.
The world at large seems divided in two camps — those who dug Rian Johnson’s 2005 debut feature, “Brick,” for its cunning appropriation of ’20s pulp-magazine tropes for a contemporary teen crime thriller and those who thought the whole exercise was too coy and airless for its own good. I was — and remain — very much in the former constituency. Subletting Dashiell Hammett’s argot without sounding like a scratchy 78 RPM record is one thing, but using it to effectively bend the suburban high school subgenre without losing hold on plausibility is quite a larger thing. Risky, for sure, and you wouldn’t want to see it done again any time soon. But “Brick” had enough assurance going for it at the jump to make one wonder (avidly, avidly) what its writer/director would try next.