Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer Hours (2009, dir. Olivier Assayas)

Published on InReviewOnline

It's the middle of the afternoon and I'm waiting in a theater sparsely populated with a dozen other strangers. Suddenly the lights dim, the curtains pull back, and the image of an old house partially concealed by a lush forest tentatively dances on the screen. As the opening credits roll, the house fades and flickers -- beautiful, ephemeral. Collectively, we try to will the shimmering mirage into existence, but it eludes us. Eventually the house fades into oblivion, replaced by a scene of children playing in the country. Did the image die of its own accord, or did we fail to sustain it, torn between our fascination with it and our expectations for narrative development?

Summer Hours, French writer/director Olivier Assayas' newest film, is a deceptively simple tale about the death of a matriarch that unexpectedly sends us into contemplative flights of fancy like the one I've described above. The matriarch Hélène, portrayed by veteran French actress Edith Scob, has spent the last third of her life devoting herself to the preservation of her uncle's art. Her small mansion in the country is a veritable shrine to his memory, filled with his own creations as well as the art he had loved and collected in his lifetime (much of it furniture). Yet unlike a museum, it's a living, breathing, organic space; when Hélène's children and grandchildren visit her in the beginning of the film, we discover the memories etched into the fabric of each piece. Priceless vases filled with flowers picked from the fields; rare art noveau furniture cluttered with knick-knacks and stuffed with toys.

Hélène's death early on in the film brings her three children and their families back together again, forcing the adults to decide on the fate of the house-as-shrine. While we might expect a Bergman-esque torrent of spiritual introspection, familial fighting, and personal revelation, we instead find an all too familiar acquiescence to life's incessant realities. A fractured narrative ensues, reinforcing the power of the banalities of existence over the larger questions of our lives.

Assayes tells his story without any obvious didacticism, and cinematographer Eric Gautier's camera captures the dynamic relationships in the family with a balletic grace. Weaving and spinning around larger gatherings, we sense the motion and movement of a family thrust forward, while he treats smaller confrontations with intimate closeups, revealing the depth and nuance of the relationships.

Summer Hours is the second film commissioned by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, the famous museum built inside of the former railway station Gare d'Orsay. The first was last year's art-house sensation Flight of the Red Balloon, and while the latter only nominally included the museum in the story, Summer Hours features it much more prominently, though not necessarily flatteringly. As much of the family's art ends up in the museum, we see it stripped bare for display. Crowds of onlookers pass it by with barely a glance; the art's significance fades, just like film's opening mirage.

Final Thought: A meditative tome on the relationship between life and art that offers abundant rewards, if few answers.

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