Tag Archives: Juliette Binoche

Summer Hours

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.

Flight of the Red Balloon

When I heard that a re-make of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short, The Red Balloon, was in the works, I wondered: how could such a film (about a boy in Paris who spends a day with a seemingly sentient red balloon) work today? And when I heard that the updated version was a project commissioned by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay (to celebrate their 20th anniversary) and would be directed by acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times), my curiosity was piqued.

I saw the new version this weekend, and I was absolutely blown away. It surpassed all my expectations and quickly jumped to the second spot (behind Paranoid Park) on my best of 2008 list so far. The film is less a remake of Lamorisse’s Oscar-winning version than it is an homage. The original film was only 34 minutes in length and free of dialogue; the 2008 version is 130 minutes and only intermittently “about” a red balloon.

One thing that I am always a fan of is out-of-the-box adaptation. That is: a film that takes inspiration from something else in theme, tone, and perhaps style, but which becomes something undeniably new in the process. A great adaptation works within an aesthetic context and frame, but expands and personalizes it as well. Hou’s work here maintains an uncanny respect and fidelity to the original, and yet pushes it further in to the mystical and metaphorical—as well as the geocultural.

It is totally fitting that a film so thoroughly about Paris is realized, in 2008, by a Taiwanese artist with a decidedly eastern sensibility. The significance of this is at least twofold: first, because we live in a globalized world and Paris—as anyone who has been there in recent years can attest—is a thoroughly international city. Secondly, the subject upon which The Red Balloon meditated (childhood), is no longer a solely western concept. The ideal of childhood (as innocent, light, and fancy free—like a red balloon) is something the whole world can relate to.

In his envisioning of The Red Balloon, however, Hou mixes in some cold, hard reality. The film opens with seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) walking around Paris, and then riding a subway, with a curious red balloon following his every move. The literal adaptation pretty much ends here.

The rest of the film is also centered around Simon’s life, but the red balloon—which infrequently appears outside Simon’s bedroom window—is relegated to the fringes, to the spaces outside the frame. Instead, we get two hours of thoroughly compelling slice-of-life observance of Simon’s daily routine, along with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), his nanny Song (Song Fang), and various other characters who float in and out of the story.

The film is, in many respects, about the juxtaposition of child and adult life. Simon and Suzanne represent the two extremes, while Song seems to occupy a place somewhere in the middle. Song is a film student in Paris for school (from Taiwan originally), and her role as nanny is one of protecting Simon’s childhood innocence, while mediating between the various “adult” intrusions that invade the family’s spaces. Song is a quiet, almost passive presence, and seems to represent the perspective of Hou—an Asian “outsider” standing on the margins, offering the artistic filter and frame wherein we can observe this family.

Suzanne is the opposite of Song: she is as frazzled and vivacious as her out-of-control blonde hair. Every scene with Suzanne becomes a three-ring circus of intensified emotion, amped up rhythm, and chaotic conflict. Juliette Binoche shines in what I think is her best performance since Blue. She is utterly familiar as the “barely keeping it together” single mom—sometimes strong, sometimes undone, but always busying herself with something. She is a striking contrast to Simon (and Song, for that matter), who lives life at a leisurely pace, wowed by the little things (pinball, video games, statues in the park, paintings at the museum) and never too disturbed by the big ones.

Still, Simon’s childhood can’t help but be victimized by his chaotic surroundings. His parents are divorced, his stepsister (his closest friend) is in Belgium, and his mother is—on her good days—a basketcase. As such, the magic red balloon (which Hou employs as a poetic symbol and aesthetic device) is sadly marginal to Simon’s existence. It shows up more in mediated form (painted on a wall, captured on Song’s digital video camera) than in physical reality—an interesting statement on the hyper-mediation of contemporary youth.

Indeed, the film’s reflexive comments on art (seen mostly through the character of Song with her video shooting, or Suzanne’s job as a puppeteer) are quite interesting. There is a sense here that “childhood” is more of an aesthetic construction than physical reality—borne out of decades of children’s literature, fairy stories, puppet shows, etc… But the film is also highly concerned with the redeeming of physical reality as such. There is a child-like wonder to be found beneath the surfaces, materials, and cadences of existence, Hou seems to infer. His camera is intensely observant in the way that a young child is—focusing on the things that exist and the actions that are happening in front of his eyes. He is not concerned with abstraction or complexity, just observing the curious circumstances of daily life. And it makes for some truly gorgeous cinema.

There is something otherworldly about the mundane goings-on of this film—the everyday household activities and structures of normality that Hou’s camera is so captivated by. A good example of the sort of “entrancing everydayness” that this film captures is its recurring focus on a rather unimpressive domestic object: an old upright piano. For long stretches of time (usually unbroken shots), we find ourselves watching Simon receive a piano lesson, but then the camera is diverted to other movement in the room: a tenant cleaning up from a party the night before, Song watching in stately observance). We later see the piano being moved up the stairs to another apartment unit, and then another scene is devoted to its being tuned (by a charming blind tuner).

I don’t know that I can articulate the unexpected beauty of these scenes—which, like most in the film—serve no purpose for anything you might call “plot,” insofar as that even exists here. All I can do is say that the everyday, when as lovingly and observantly rendered as it is here, is certainly a site of transcendent beauty. Paul Schrader once wrote (in Transcendental Style in Film), that “transcendental artists” use the mundane representation of life to “prepare reality for the intrusion of the Transcendent.” The everyday, he wrote, “celebrates the bare threshold of existence, those banal occurrences which separate the living from the dead, the physical from the material, those occurrences which so many people equate with life itself.” When we are focused upon this root level of existence (and cinema—perhaps more than any other art—can focus us on everyday reality), we begin to see the beauty and mystery of life itself. The Flight of the Red Balloon uses this tactic to great effect. It is one of the alive films I have ever seen.