Olivier Assayas is about as protean as today's great filmmakers come, but the last thing I expected from the mad genius behind the globe-trotting, gorgeously kinetic Boarding Gate is a Chekhovian chamber drama whose mantra could be essentially reduced to: posterity cares. If Boarding Gate convincingly documented a 21st century where human beings can be bought, sold, and shipped from New York to Paris to Hong Kong like shares on the NASDAQ, Summer Hours is the sobering requiem for the safety of objects, for the shape and weight of everything we leave behind when we give in to perpetual flux. Together the two films offer a deeply affecting inquiry into the meaning (and market necessity) of attachment in an age of unfettered globalization.
In Summer Hours, a group of adult siblings inherit a French country estate and their great uncle's collection of 19th-century art when their mother dies, and weigh their pragmatic interests against a family legacy. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) lives in New York, can rarely visit, and would rather sell the heirloom. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) is preparing a move to China to help manufacture Puma shoes with cheap labor, and could definitely use another financial boost. It's left to Frederic (Charles Berling) to be the standard bearer. He's a university professor pushing an awkward dictum that "the economy is the opposite of a science"; perhaps as a result, he sees the peculiar aesthetic value in the pieces of a broken Degas plaster his mother kept in a plastic bag.
In stark contrast to the hyperbolic monsters of Arnaud Desplechin's chaotic reunion epic A Christmas Tale, the family members here treat each other with a credible civility. When the skeletons are eventually unearthed, the siblings are inquisitive but hardly get worked up. It's a testament to Assayas's empathy that he is able to build the entirety of his drama in the distance between his principals' forgivable self-interest and their quiet kindness. Yes, on one level Jeremie is getting ready to turn a profit from sweatshop labor, but he's also seeking a safety net for his children, so that they too can one day puzzle over their inheritance. Adrienne seems egocentric and frazzled, but Binoche's gestures suggest that she'd rather serve as her art's purveyor than as its guardian.
In his thrilling Irma Vep, Assayas depicted an artist maddeningly fraying all human bonds in the hot pursuit of an epiphany. The world of Summer Hours is a couple generations removed from the madness of creation; it offers the idea that any "finished product"—artistic or otherwise—is subject to decay, or at least a perpetual adaptation. The broken Degas plaster may have lost its market value, but it might also serve as a vivid reminder of the time the siblings ran a bit too quickly down the hallway. As such, the drunken teenage house party that closes Summer Hours, seemingly pitched as a didactic lament for the future, eventually about-faces into something rare and beautiful and surprising. The past may be decomposing, but the kids are all right.