Having just come back from France, and needing desperately to get the bad taste of Antichrist out of my mouth, I went to see Summer Hours over the weekend—a French film directed by Oliver Assayas and starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier. It was just what the doctor ordered, and more. Summer Hours was two summer hours of pure cinematic bliss, a film I have no hesitation calling a masterpiece and perhaps the best film of the year so far.
The film—as its title implies—is about time. The passage of it. The joy and tragedy of living temporally.
The plot of the film is gloriously simple. It’s about a French family dealing with the death of its matriarch. The film opens with a joyful summer scene at one of those storybook country houses in rural France. The whole family has gathered here for a reunion and celebration of grandmother Helene’s (Edith Scob) 75th birthday. As the children and grandchildren gradually disperse and go their separate ways at the conclusion of the festivities, Helene is left alone with the sadness of a once-again empty house and a feeling that her days are numbered. And indeed, within the year she is dead.
After Helene’s passing, her three children return to the house in France to consider the fate of the estate. Will they keep or sell the house? And what of the esteemed art collection and museum-quality pieces that are in the house? Will they stay in the family or be sold off to collectors and museums? Quickly, sadly, and all-too-realistically, the siblings decide that they need cash more than antiques. They sell the house and go about the business of selling off their families prized possessions.
The majority of the film is an observance—a quiet, curious, melancholy observance—of the minutiae and business of getting the estate sold off. It’s about the process of tidying up affairs after a death. It’s about moving on and clearing the way for the next phase of life. It’s about our entrances and exits and the ambivalent banality of it all.
I think one of the reasons this film affected me so much is that my own grandmother’s house—the house my mother and uncles were raised in and the house I grew up visiting—was recently sold and all of its furniture and belongings dolled out among the children and grandchildren. My grandmother was put in a nursing home and her whole material life was left behind and now liquidated. It’s a terribly sad thing, to realize that something so spirited and alive as a house could so quickly turn into a lifeless relic or alien structure with new tenants. It’s so weird to see a material history evaporate with a few handshakes, pen strokes, and an interchange of documents. But so is life: it’s all so very evanescent.
Summer Hours is about the beauty and meaning of objects. It raises interesting, profound questions about why we treasure certain things and what gives a vase or desk or painting “value.” Is it the story behind it, or the way we use it? Is it the beauty and craftsmanship of the thing itself? Is a vase designed by a famous master more “alive” in a museum or in a rural cottage with a bouquet of flowers sticking out of it?
But the film is also about life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.
The house at the center of Summer Hours is an impressive structure and perhaps the most important character in the film. It’s the one constant—and there is a decidedly ghostly quality to the way that it transitions from a bustling center of family and furniture to an empty re-booted tabula rasa, ready for the next family to move in. If these walls could talk, what would they say? Summer Hours mulls this question but easily concludes that, in the end, walls and objects cannot talk. Their meaning is derived only and ever through the experiences of people who use them and see them in different ways and for different reasons.
There is a major gulf between humans and objects, and it has to do with time. The former decays far more rapidly than the latter. People almost always die sooner than their accumulated, material lives. Our footprints and letters and blankets and beds will long outlive us, though they will frequently move on and forget they ever accompanied us for a time. And this is the film’s most beautiful and heartbreaking realization—that humans are mostly just passing through, ruffling up the earth and fabrics and rocks and trees for a time, but then passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not a good or bad thing. Like the unchangeable persistence of time, it’s just the way that it is.