Siblings drift apart following a mother's death in this exquisitely observed family drama
"A lot of things will be leaving with me" Hélène (Edith Scob) tells her eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), on her 75th birthday. All three of her children have gathered for the occasion at her country house about a 50-minute train ride from the Gare du Nord: Frédéric and his wife and kids; the New York-based designer Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, smashing as a blonde); and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a China-based businessman, with his wife and young kids. The house and its lush grounds originally belonged to Hélène's uncle, now a revered French artist, and it's filled with valuable Art Nouveau furniture, vases, china, and sculptures in which the Musée d'Orsay has expressed interest. And since Frédéric, a Parisian economist, is Hélène's only child still in France, she knows the burden of dealing with the estate will fall on him when she passes. Frédéric dismisses her--she's in great shape and spirits and she's looking forward to going to the opening of her uncle's works at a San Francisco museum in a couple of months--but after everybody leaves, Hélène sits alone in the dark, commiserating with the longtime domestic, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), that so much of what made this house special, the lives it's fostered, the memories it's created, will die with her.
This opening scene in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours contains equal moments of joy, awkwardness, and sibling tension, but most of all it is profoundly ordinary, which is what makes the movie so quietly affecting. For a medium that routinely turns to death as entertainment--as plot points, as special-effects money shots, as path of least resistance between the heart and the strings that pull it--it's remarkable how few movies deal with death head on. As in, not in showing how hard it is to kill somebody or the frazzled emotions when a mother clings to life in a hospital bed or what a dead body looks like or other such obviously charged situations. Not at all; while Hélène does pass--offscreen, at some point after her 75th birthday party and the San Francisco museum opening--Summers Hours isn't some operatic portrayal of a mother's death and how it concatenates out through her children's and grandchildren's lives and families. It's much more mundane than that, following Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie matter-of-factly dealing with their mother's funeral plans, choosing a burial plot, and lawyers and appraisers and whoever else might want a piece of Hélène's estate. It's a movie about the bureaucratic everything else that happens after a loved one dies. It's a reminder that dying is easy--it's living that sucks.
Throughout, both the director and cast maneuver through the situations with the same restraint that paints the opening scene. Binoche expresses Adrienne's grief after her mother's viewing in face only, no waterworks of sobs. When Frédéric--who hopes to keep the house and estate just as Hélène did--realizes both Jérémie and Adrienne only see themselves coming back to France once a year at best and want to sell the house and its contents, he quietly gathers the coffee cups onto a tray, walks them to his flat's kitchen; his wife finds him sitting by himself in a dark room, not wanting his siblings to see how disappointed he is--not that they want to sell the house, but that he now realizes what Hélène warned him about: how the siblings will drift apart. The few moments of frisson--such as when Jérémie tells the family lawyer that he's already spoken to a real-estate agent about Hélène's country house--begin to flare up and then are quickly, if tensely, patted down, capturing the sort of natural rhythms of uneasy conflicts. That is, the movie permits adults to behave like adults.
Which is not to imply that Summer Hours doesn't plunge into depths of sadness; it does so patiently and surreptitiously. Assayas slyly offsets early scenes with later ones in ways that amass an overwhelming momentum. At the end, Frédéric agrees to let his teenaged daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and her friends have a party there a month before the final sale. And as the young Parisians arrive by scooters and move through the house drinking and smoking and listening to hip-hop, Eric Gautier's camera follows them through the house and grounds, which now looks scavenged and derelict: an empty bottle on a windowsill, items that wouldn't sell at auction piled against a wall. And just when you think that Hélène's words to Frédéric have come to pass, Sylvie shares a memory of her grandmother with her boyfriend, a casual moment that, like the movie itself, perfectly balances the innocuous and touching.