The 2008 film Summer Hours is all about legacy. It captures the lives of three siblings around the death of their mother, Helene, who was the keeper not only of their childhoods and the objects associated with it, but also of the memory of her uncle, a well-known painter. Frederic, the eldest son and only sibling still living in France, wants to preserve the house, its objects, and its artworks for continued use and pass it along to the next generation. Adrienne lives in the U.S. and Jeremie in China, they wish to sell everything as they are unlikely to use the house, having more use for its profits. The film explores the challenges inherent in passing things along to future generations. When 75-year-old Helene wants to speak to Frederic about what will fall to his care after her passing, he finds it too difficult to discuss her death. When Frederic, in turn, speaks to his teenage children about the art in the house, they try to admire it, but are really more interested in their music and their friends. Writer and director Olivier Assayas has an admirably light touch. He has the confidence to write good scenes, get people to come together and really do what his scripts say they do, and to let his camera simply observe them. I make that sound easy but it's not. That is the work of the filmmaker. Friend Sheila and I were talking about just this the other night. The medium of film is not celluloid - although that might be the chemical substance its sounds and images are recorded on. Its not even the camera, although without knowing to use lenses and cameras one could not make a film. It is people. The children play a game during the film's opening and they are obviously children playing with an interest in winning a game - not posing for the camera. It takes talent to show people being people. Actors can be very interested in themselves. They admire their own faces and their hard won talents. Assayas has cast beautifully Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renier know what it means to inhabit a character whose life is full of details you never actually get to show, but which must precede their behavior in the story if it is to make sense. In Summer Hours- the characters act, not meaning demonstrate, meaning they do things. They meet, they mourn, they eat meals together, they make decisions - and the camera observes. They don't force themselves on the viewer. They do their jobs and if you are interested you may do your's.
Assays's mise en scene is smart. His camera celebrates the warmth, the lush and somewhat worn beauty of the house in the final summer that it is filled with its contents and people. After the death of Helene, he and his cameras walk through as the art and furniture are appraised for their value, now the house possesses the same contents, but the light is cooler, grayer. Epicures eye the Corot and the Hoffmann armoire over their expensive glasses. The stoves must be lit for warmth. The long-time caretaker of the house peers in the windows of her old home. In the film's closing scenes, we see the house's contents lodged in the Musee D'Orsay as a tour guide lectures her group on the history of desk we have come to associate with Helene's home. It is summer again. The nearly abandoned house is filled with Helen's grandchildren who party in its now raw, unfurnished rooms and its unkempt garden, blasting french rap and getting stoned. The place is obsolete - or is it? Assayas is smart enough not to decide for us. Time marches on but French law allows one to donate art to museums in exchange for a break on inheritance tax. The art may no longer reside in the home of the family whose ancestors acquired it, however one could say that many more members of future generations get to enjoy it. Is the vase by a great sculptor most valuable as a highly protected and revered possession of a museum or as the container of flowers in a home where it might at any moment be knocked to the floor by children playing? These are the questions one is left turning softly over in one's mind as the film ends. I learned on the DVD extras that to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Musee D'Orsay, rather than making a straight, PBS-style documentary about their collection, commissioned films by real filmmakers to celebrate their birthday. Summer Hours, Assayas's contribution, is a thoughtful, tender, and quiet gem.