erik lundegaard


L’Heure d’ete (2009)


“L’Heure d’ete,” pluralized to “Summer Hours” in the English translation, would make a good double-feature with “Rachel Getting Married.” Both films depict family tension surrounding a major event: a wedding for “Rachel,” a death for “Summer.” If someone thinks up a good birth movie, we’ve got our triple bill.

The film begins with kids and dogs racing through the woods, and into the backyard of a cottage house, on a treasure hunt. It becomes a story about giving up treasure.

The owner of the cottage house is Helene (a chic Edith Scob), and everyone’s gathered for her 75th birthday. Along with Eloise, the housekeeper, we see five adults eating, drinking and smoking around the backyard table, and can surmise, without explicitly being told, which are Helene’s kids and which are in-laws. Maybe it’s the way Helene’s kids sit, or speak, or speak more, but we understand by merely observing who’s who. There’s Frederic (Charles Bering), the eldest, who has something weary about him; Adrienne (Juliet Binoche), the New Yorker, who has something hard about her; and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), the youngest, who lives abroad in China, working for les baskets Puma, and has something playful about him.

Even as Helene enjoys the company, and the chaotic life the kids and grandkids bring, she takes a reluctant Frederic, the only child still living in France, through the house, detailing which precious object should go where when she dies. Every family has precious objects but these objects are truly, prestigiously precious: paintings by Corot, a Hoffman armoire, vases by Bracquemond, and pieces of a sculpture by Degas, which, sometime in the past, Helene’s kids broke—one imagines while playing. Her uncle, Paul Berthier, was a great artist (and, we find out later, her lover), and these are the remnants of the family’s artistic past. Helene counsels selling this, giving that to the Musee d’Orsay, but Frederic, who has trouble talking about the death of his mother with his mother, assumes everything will stay the same: the kids will keep the house and the works of art. She assumes otherwise. She counsels otherwise. Why have this weight on you? Start anew.

In cinematic time, her death comes swiftly and without drama. Frederic—a Parisian economist who’s written a book that’s not well-received, and has been appearing on intellectual radio shows to defend his work—goes into an office building where someone expresses their condolences and they pick out a cemetery plot. That’s it. Driving to the cottage house, Frederic stops the car and cries, while Adrienne, with her American boyfriend, sheds a few tears in the hospital, but that’s the extent of the outward emotion. Everything else is inward. And business. And choices.

The mother was right: the kids vote to sell the place. Adrienne is getting married to the American and doesn’t know how often she’ll be back, while Jeremie has agreed to a five-year commitment with Puma in Beijing, and his family plans to summer in Bali. Frederic acquiesces to all of this, sadly, but without much of a struggle. There are no villains here, just life spreading out, going where it goes, and the rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. They’re basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a melancholy sight. “For the family, it must be sadder,” she adds, but one wonders. Eloise seems to have a deeper connection with the place, and with Helene, than even Frederic. She has no kids of her own, just a nephew, a taxi driver who drives her around. He loves her, hugs her, then leaves her at the doorstep of her apartment—the same way Helene, earlier, was left at the steps of her house after the kids and grandkids left. It’s something else they have in common. It’s something else they have in common with the precious artifacts. What do we do with these things?

The three grown-up siblings have familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also this quiet curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? When Adrienne rushes into a taxi after a meeting with their lawyer, the two brothers, walking to a cafe, comment on how she’s like their mother:

“She’s running from something,” one says.
“Not us, I hope,” the other says, and both laugh.

No villains here, but writer/director Olivier Assayas, who has made movies about global disconnect before (“demon lover”), seems to be commenting upon some aspect of specifically French dissolution. Two-thirds of Helene’s kids live abroad, the grandkids are “into America,” the artifacts wind up in museums. What aspect of French culture is still part of French daily life? Where and what is our treasure?

“L’heure d’ete” is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life ends, life goes on. Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It’s vibrant. It’s life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind.

—May 23, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard