Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours is the second in a series of films to be sponsored by the Musée d’Orsay and following Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, it indicates that the Parisian museum is kicking ass at curating films by some of the world’s most outstanding and edgiest filmmakers even if they are not the most famous auteurs.
If you’ve seen the poster or trailer for Summer Hours, you might think that a film that looks like a bunch of white French people sitting around swilling wine in a pretty garden doesn’t look particularly edgy but appearances can be deceiving. Olivier Assayas is a filmmaker in the tradition of the French New Wave. Originally a critic for the legendary Cahiers du cinéma, Assayas has been making features since 1986 experimenting with form, engaging with politics and mashing together aesthetics from all over the globe (from the cinema of Taiwan to the soundscapes of Sonic Youth and Brian Eno). Assayas’ cinema is vital, provocative and insightful unlike the pretty, stagnant, crowd-pleasing turds we too often see from France. Assayas’ films are diverse ranging from the post-modern comedy of Irma Vep to the bittersweet drama of Late August, Early September; from the experimental cyber-thriller Demonlover to the B-movie stylings of Boarding Gate (whose poster features Asia Argento’s flashing her magnificent crotch). But Assayas films also explore common themes: The effects of globalisation on the nation-state, the way capitalism determines desire. And those themes follow through in Assayas’ latest.
Summer Hours is a family drama. The film opens with a gathering at a beautiful country house. Three adult siblings and their families are there to celebrate their mother’s birthday. During the day, the mother (Edith Scob from Eyes Without a Face), takes her eldest aside to instruct him as to what to do with the valuable objects and artwork that fills the house. She wants them to be sold to the Musée d’Orsay but he doesn’t want to hear of it assuming that the family will keep everything for their sentimental attachment. After the mother’s death however, things end up quite differently.
Yes, this is a film about museum objects, which sounds like a dry subject and hardly edgy. But Summer Hours isn’t edgy in the ‘drugs, sex and rock and roll’ sense. What’s edgy is Assayas’ outlook on life. Ultimately this film is about how nobody has a monopoly over culture. These objects have a very specific emotional meaning to the mother but they might have more meaning for the siblings for their monetary value as the sister (Juliette Binoche) lives in New York as a successful designer and the youngest brother (Jeremie Renier) lives in China to work for a large multinational shoe corporation and neither will be able to appreciate the house. The siblings’ children have even less emotional attachment to the house and its fascinating to see where the film goes as it focuses on the next generation, creating new meaning out of their world. Assayas has respect for the past but he’s never been precious about heritage (Irma Vep about the modern remake of a classic French silent film with Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung cast in the lead is a good example) and understands that it’s the role of youth to shake things up. Stuffy elitist types like to talk about the high art of French culture but Assayas is adamant about avoiding reverence or nostalgia for the past.
I don’t however want to make the film sound like it’s just about big abstract ideas to the detriment of emotional engagement. It’s one of Assayas’ most accessible films. What makes Summer Hours so engaging is the warmth between the characters and what makes Assayas so cool is the absolute generosity with which he depicts his characters. Like in an Edward Yang film or Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty or the TV show Freaks and Geeks, Assayas has a real understanding of different generations – it’s always refreshing to see a film that isn’t dismissive of older generations nor condescending of younger generations. Summer Hours is also often very funny in its observations on family dynamics. For example, an exchange of barbs between the designer and the corporate businessman attacking each other’s world views shows how the bonds between siblings allow stinging comments to be made without breaking apart.
Another highlight is the soundtrack featuring classical music from Robin Williamson and hippy folk music from the Incredible String Band (of which Robin Williamson was a member) which is having a resurgence lately being championed by the likes of Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. If the quality of the films being produced by Musée d’Orsay continues as it has (and there’s good reason to believe so with upcoming films from Chilean director Raul Ruiz and the American Jim Jarmusch), we’ll have a lot to look forward to.
SEE THIS WITH:
Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)