Wednesday, May 13, 2009

SUMMER HOURS: furniture and family in the best film yet from Olivier Assayas


Does anyone run more hot and cold regarding the work of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (shown at right) than TrustMovies? I found Irma Vep a tad over-rated, though I was quite taken with Late August, Early September. Les destinées sentimentales came complete with everything I usually want in a film but proved somehow inert. I loved Demonlover and loathed Clean -- the reverse, I realize, of most critics. Assayas' segment of Paris, je t'aime worked beautifully (but then I thought every segment in that enchantment paid a nice dividend).

Boarding Gate? An unmitigated disaster that ought to have called into question the most fundamental abilities of a certain low-grade "star" apparently named for the world's largest continent. And now comes Summer Hours (L'heure d'été).

If the writer/director's latest is not a great film -- it may well be one -- it's certainly his greatest and will no doubt appear on numerous "Best" lists, come the end of the year, just as did last year's A Christmas Tale by Assayas' compatriot, Arnaud Desplechin -- a film which sprang to mind a number of times while watching Summer Hours. The two movies share a fine cinematographer, Eric Gautier, as well as the French penchant for understatement, philosophizing and making interesting connections in unusual ways.

Summer Hours is all about a large French family (above) and its possessions, specifically a grand old house full of history (and wonderful artifacts, some via famous names) set in the verdant countryside and owned by the family's elderly matriarch (the stunning Edith Scob, below, who much earlier in her career decorated Franju's famous Eyes Without a Face). When mortality rears its necessary head, what will happen to these possessions? This is the question that dogs Assayas' characters and his film.

Though we see the grand-kids of the matriarch, it's her three children with whom we spend most of our time. Charles Berling, more interesting with each new role, plays the elder son and mommy's favorite, though the two do have a few issues. Juliette Binoche is the distant (in miles and emotions) daughter, while Jérémie Renier essays the younger son who, for reasons of career, has outsourced himself (and his family) to China. I suspect Assayas is less concerned with this fellow; certainly, the Renier character comes off as the least interesting of the three siblings, with Binoche in second place. It's Berling, whose attachment to family, as well as to the many memories connected to this house, proves the centerpiece of the movie. (Berling's son Emile, who registered so strongly in A Christmas Tale, takes the role of the character's "movie" son in the film.)

Also vital to the heart of Summer Hours is the matriarch's housekeeper Éloïse, played by the glowing, aging Isabelle Sadoyan (shown, right, who made her film debut nearly 40 years ago in Sautet's Les choses de la vie). Éloïse is as much as part of the family, the house and the film as anyone else, though only the viewer is likely to fully understand this. The family members are too caught up in their own immediate needs and events to appreciate her profound connection. And here is where M. Assayas' command of filmmaking becomes quietly apparent. There are moments -- a number of them throughout the movie -- at which point the ineffable is somehow expressed. Assayas manages this by linking a visual moment to something that has come before, so that we are suddenly aware of a connection, a feeling, an idea that shimmers for a moment, unstated -- and then we move on.

These moments -- in a museum, the house, the garden -- link everything from material objects to the generations, and their cumulative effect allows us to feel that we've understood, briefly, life itself. (That's right: the work of Jean Renoir and possibly a few other great filmmakers may come to mind.) This experience, rare in film, is to be treasured. So is Assayas' movie -- which opens this Friday, May 15, at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A limited national theatrical release will follow, as will availabilty to over 55 million homes in all major U.S. markets via IFC Films’ video-on-demand platform.

2 comments:

GHJ - said...

Jim - I think Assayas is something special, but he's the one director I've never been fully able to express why I like so much. Maybe it's his tone, or unsettling attitude toward trust. I agree, Demonlover is a great film, but I'm much higher on Boarding Gate than you. I found it fascinating and exciting. As for Clean, I think it has some merit, like Maggie Cheung's tortured performance. I need to se Irma Vep again to fully register it, but I thought it was overrated upon first viewing. Anyways, can't wait for Summer Hours, which opens in San Diego next week.

James van Maanen, said...

You're in San Diego?! Didn't realize. (Don't know what I imagined: maybe the Pacific Northwest...) I'll be very interested in what you think of this one. Re: Boarding Gate, I suspect I am simply not an Asia Argento fan. Haven't seen The Last Mistress yet, and that may help turn the corner for me. With Clean, it was the rotten dialog that got me. It was like he'd never actually heard English spoken, let alone written it: everyone spoke as though they'd been traslated from the French. Here's what I said (on GreenCine, under my Talltale moniker) when I first saw the movie: http://www.greencine.com/webCatalog?id=188822&element=clean
Anyway, enjoy Assayas' "Summer"