Summer Hours opens with children playing in the French countryside, observed by a calm camera in elegant tracking and crane shots; there’s a warm guitar/string quartet score playing. The weather is gorgeous, the adults are drinking wine, and the Landmark crowd is settling calmly into their seats; the title itself seems bathed in the unearned seasonal glow of Agnès Jaoui. Is this really an Olivier Assayas film? After a few minutes, the camera goes shaky and handheld, confirming you’re in the right theater, but still. As it turns out, Summer Hours is as Assayas-esque a film as there ever was; it’s just that Assayas has toned down the tics that were driving him into self-parody.
Within his own filmography, the film Summer Hours has been most compared to is Late August, Early September, Assayas’ other stab at bourgeois drama, which is a pretty specious basis of comparison. Late August is a great movie, and it’s certainly a prototypical “French film,” full of sexually miserable intellectuals and rambles through the countryside, but it foregrounds individual pain and arcs of personal growth (or shriveling) over a long time-period. Summer Hours, despite its expansive, relaxed opening, is remarkably tense, tramping through five or six set-pieces with little time for detours. The tone of the opening family reunion gets a little constricting when grandmother Hélène (Édith Scob) pulls aside son Frédéric (Charles Berling) and starts instructing him on what will go to who when it comes time for dissolve her estate.
Frédéric’s nonplussed by her seemingly unnecessary morbidity, but it’s prophetic: he’ll turn out to be the only one who wants to retain the house when she dies, the only one whose sentimental attachments outweigh financial pragmatism. Once that becomes clear after Hélène’s death, almost all interpersonal issues get set aside or sublimated. Instead, we get sequences of meeting with the lawyer and sorting through the technicalities of the estate, a brisk appraisal of the house’s property by experts in their field, meetings in the Musee D’Orsay over acquisitions, etc.
The famously jittery and visually brilliant Assayas has made his first film that could truly be labeled “literary” (in a totally non-pejorative way; “literary” does not automatically equal “non-cinematic”). Dialogue has at least as much weight as visuals, which wasn’t true before, and the dialogue seems constructed in a way that’s just as pleasing and compressed transcribed as on-screen. (Frédéric: “She talked about death.” Wife: “In those terms?” “No. She talked about the house, my great-uncle’s sketches.” “She talked about death.” “Like I said.”)
This has the beneficial side-effect of preventing Assayas from beating his familiar visual motifs even further to death than Boarding Gate—with its too-predictable image of LCD projectors colonizing Asia Argento’s face with global karaoke culture, et al.—did. Irma Vep is obviously a great film, but Demonlover is almost as great (and one of the decade’s great zeitgeist films), and Summer Hours makes the same concerns he’s been mulling over since then fresh in explicit verbal formulations; it’s consistent but not wearisome. When Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) announces “The house doesn’t mean very much to me anymore. France either,” she might as well be speaking for Assayas.
The film never leaves France, but it’s implicitly global: one of the siblings works for Puma in China, Adrienne lives in New York with her American lover, etc. Assayas—more so than anyone, arguably—is a post-global filmmaker. While someone like Agnès Jaoui congratulates herself (in an excruciating NYFF press conference for Let It Rain) on being “political” by making a key character an Arab, it has to be noted that Jaoui couldn’t even begin to think about characters of non-French nationalities until they become unavoidable inside France. Assayas is smarter (and, non-coincidentally, much less smug) about being “political”; people of other nationalities and global business/cultural cross-breeding is unavoidable, even when you’re making a nice little French countryside piece and never leave there and/or actually see the newcomers.
Early on, Frédéric shows the kids the family’s two prize paintings. Their response: “It’s not another era.” This is true, but they mean it negatively. Disliking something for being past its time is not a legitimate reason—or is it? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Assayas thinks so either (certainly not Assayas the voracious cinephile who made Irma Vep his love letter to Les Vampires, among other things), but he’s able to see how that could be a reality for a lot of people quite soon, and he can accept it. Where to find continuity, then? In kids’ party habits. When the house is sold, it’s agreed to let Frédéric’s daughter and her pals party there for a weekend before the place is transferred over to its new owners. Scowling over the sales and eating lunch with his wife, a brooding Frédéric announces, by rote, “They’d better behave.” “Why?” she asks, and they break into laughter.
It’s a lovely moment, not least because it acknowledges a reality (at least of French upper-middle-class life) known since the ’70s: the kids are going to do illegal shit, and they’ll be fine anyway. The final party sequence draws an explicit through-line back to 1994’s Cold Hours, which developed the exact same set-piece in a different era; how little has changed. Some have viewed this as an indication that Assayas—nearly 55—is finally beginning to side with the elders rather than the youth, which seems unlikely to me. The past has its lure, but it’s the eternal constant of teen parties that still gets him juiced for one final go at a style he’s seemingly outgrown. Assayas adapts to a traditional style only to explode it from the inside at the last second. If you have to sell out a bit, this—not Clean—is the way to do it.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.