Thursday, January 28, 2010

Film Review: SUMMER HOURS (2009, Olivier Assayas)

Stars: 3.7 of 5.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling, Kyle Eastwood, Edith Scob.
Tag-line: "Every family has its time in the sun."
Best one-liner: "Well, it's another era."
Awards: Appeared on most critics' top ten lists of 2009, Best Foreign Film of '09 according to Boston Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics; recently inducted into the Criterion Collection.

SUMMER HOURS is an engrossing rumination on the nature of worldly possessions and the increasing globalization of the family unit. Assayas leaves the blockheaded storytelling of BOARDING GATE (which I still enjoyed) behind, and creates his most mature work to date- the work of a filmmaker moving from one phase of his life into the next.

In some regards, it's a procedural- doing for "upper-class French postmortem estate planning" what THE NAKED CITY did for "NYPD murder investigations." But, like the best police procedurals, it's never really about the case at hand, it's about the case’s impact on the characters. Commissioned by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, we're entreated to museums of different sorts: private, domestic shrines to childhood memories are juxtaposed with public, bureaucratic Ivory Towers.

(Being a child of the 80's, the ideas at play here call to mind Indiana Jones' thickheaded "it belongs in a museum!" logic that the Smithsonian is somehow a better place for the Golden Idol than the Hovitos' Temple!)

"That Marjorelle display case belongs in a Marjorelle display case at a museum!"

The style is simple and languid; the performances are unostentatious but truthful (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Assayas alter-ego Charles Berling, and even a bit part by Kyle Eastwood!); and the payoffs are wistful and largely affecting.

Binoche: always solid.

But allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment, because I'm not sure Olivier and I are seeing eye to eye. I can understand how an object is robbed of meaning in the transplantation from a family home to a sterile display case (to be gawked at by impassive masses who shuffle through the halls of Orsay). But does it REALLY have more meaning to a pack of bluebloods who take things like Majorelle cases or Josef Hoffmann armoires for granted, even as they lay guilt trips on the help for occasionally breaking a dish or an objet d'art? I've cater-waitered for these people before, and I hated them. So pardon me if I don't shed a tear your dearly departed summer home.

This sweet old vulture rings especially true.

Every family has its time in the sun, just as every family has a summer home. I mean, at least the families one ought to consort with.

Still, it’s an artful, pensive film which captures a certain, fleeting quality of memory. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Side note: And the teens at the end! The French teen party at the summer home! I was held in rapt attention- the way one might react to a train wreck. They're even worse than American teens- moneyed, self-absorbed, and totally bummed out that the summer home will no longer be available for their nauseating leisure activities.

A whole new generation of well-heeled D-bags. It's like the Hydra- you cut off one head, and two grow up in its place. Next thing you know, you've got an infestation.

And yet the point of the scene, I believe, was to show that "the next generation has a sincere appreciation of extravagant things, too, it just takes a different form." And I really don't want to get going on a rant about wealth distribution, so let's just end this here before the rhetoric gets too vitriolic.

COMING SOON: My best of '09 lists.

No comments: