Sunday, October 4, 2009



From France comes Olivier Assayas’s thoughtful “Summer Hours,” a movie for boomers who find themselves looking after aging parents. Now playing at the Loft Cinema, this film overflows with the rich literary quality we associate with art films. The pace is almost languid, caressing details of sibling competition even when the siblings are all in their 40s and successful in their individual careers.

Juliette Binoche is the most familiar cast member to Americans, playing Adrienne the middle sister to first-born Frederic (Charles Berling) and “baby brother” Jeremie (Jeremie Renier). The real star in this upscale family is Great-Uncle Paul, long deceased, who was an artist of some significance in Europe.

After an opening sequence that establishes Helene (Edith Scob) as an unsentimental matriarch, Helene passes away unexpectedly. Now the families of the three surviving children must divvy up the long-cherished art collection and heirloom furniture that Helene cared for so autocratically.

Being the eldest, Frederic leads the negotiations. He is also the one who would much prefer to keep the rambling old house and all the treasures it contains.

Adrienne and Jeremie are committed to life elsewhere – Adrienne is based in New York, Jeremie at a massive factory in China turning out those brand name running shoes so familiar in the States.

But that is just the set-up. Assayas is most interested in creating the textures of family life in a setting where money and power aren’t the main ingredients. In his careful study of relationships, he lingers over the details of rivalries and relationships that took decades to develop.

There is the civilized surface of three children who grew up supporting each other. But telltale ripples of lifted eyebrows and other body language belie suppressed feelings barely kept latched into place. Adrienne the jaunty one even seems more American than her two brothers.

Internal pressure begins to build as Frederic realizes he must accept the family’s decision to sell the house and all its treasures. Even after they voted to sell everything, each of the three has a few favorite pieces to hold back. Alliances are formed, bonds from childhood are tested, strategies deepen.

In front of this tensely coiled backdrop, evidence begins to emerge that Helene may have secretly had a more intimate relationship with her Great-Uncle Paul. The family’s vulnerability increases when the vulture-like arts appraisers start coming around, picking over pieces in the living room that were beloved for themselves, not for being pretentious art.

But just as death is a part of life, so is youth a part of the future. While the grown-ups flex their egos and bicker over prices, their own teen children look at the old house with its big open spaces and shout “Let’s party!”

So much for the value of art, the importance of heritage and all that. As always, it is the optimism of the young that saves society from the rigidity of tradition. The old stuff can always be appreciated, but it’s the new stuff that pulls us forward.


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