A review by Fabian Mangahas.
Before the start of the film, Olivier Assayas spoke to the audience in the theater. While this film is not autobiographical — he shared — I thought about my mother while making this film. It felt like an invitation from the director to look at his film with a more personal eye, and to think about our own dear families.
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The movie unfolds simply, but it is a multi-layered exposition, almost documentary, on family memories. The perfect French matriarch — elegant, lovely, warm, intelligent and strong — is the repository of it all. Helene knows everything about the major artistic figure of the family, Paul Berthier. She knows her uncle’s history, his artwork, his network of artist friends, and the provenance and value of all paintings, sculpture, books, furniture, and objects d’art that her uncle collected during his life. They are more than just catalogued or listed in ledgers; they are thoroughly embedded in the daily life of the family’s summer home outsideParis.
And since these objects have been present (or loomed over) the lives of the family for so long, when Helene suddenly passes, it is difficult to decide what to do with them. What should be sold, kept, donated, auctioned? Ultimately, what is of value and who determines what is of value? A lot of the burden seems to fall to the eldest son, Frederic and much of the movie’s development falls from his conversations with his siblings Adrienne and Jeremie, who have effectively left France to make their lives elsewhere in the world.
The film is a little unusual in that none of these trying conversations are particularly heated or emotional. They are always civil, but I give credit to Assayas at how he subtly teases out how each of the children’s lives and values are different from that of Helene’s. At first there seems to be no issue or blame on the final decisions the three siblings come up with, but two powerful characters in the movie give the viewer at least some pause. First is the longtime housekeeper, Eloise, who is the strongest argument for keeping the past together. Second is Frederic’s daughter, who at first seems to disdain the past, but in fact has deep feelings for it. Neither character is part of any decision on what to do with the summer house, but their quiet sadness, particularly Eloise’s, argues if any of this was fair to begin with.
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The movie is a treat, and unfolds rather than progresses towards a conclusion. At approximately 1hr and 40 mins, it is just the right length.
L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours) and other movies by Olivier Assayas are currently showing in the Citi-Rustan’s French Film Festival. The festival runs until June 17, 2012. Admission is free.