Monday, July 20, 2009

"Summer Hours"

The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is probably best known for Irma Vep, a 1996 update of Day for Night, about the efforts of a movie director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his squad of technicians and assistants who were all trying to make a modern version of the silent movie serial Les Vampires, with Maggie Cheung, as herself, slinking about the set in a black cat suit. (My favorite detail may have been the lackey whose job was to hang around Maggie with a little squirt bottle to make sure her outfit stayed shiny.) Since then, Assayas has certainly established himself as a man of wide-ranging ambitions. His movies have ranged from the aging-friends ensemble drama Lat August, Early September and Les destinées sentimentales, a three-hour family drama set in the nineteenth century, to Demonlover, which ended with its anti-heroine, Connie Nielson, ensnared in a Videodrome-like S & M website, where she was last seen trussed up in fetish gear and waiting for her fate to be determined by some kid a million miles away who'd logged on using his dad's credit card, and the trash-fest Boarding Gate. Whatever their subject matter, Assayas's films are always intelligent, handsomely mounted, and intriguing; the one thing they generally lack is a pulse. They're not overly predetermined, like the work of some smart guys who make dull movies, but they do seem more thought-out than felt, and this can make the experience of being bored by them more frustrating than it is at sloppier movies. This is especially so in the case of his provocations, like Boarding Gate, which is like a self-conscious attempt to create the ultimate nightmare fantasy of rough sex and paranoid thrills; fighting to keep from falling asleep while Asia Argento is running around in her underwear executing people and being pursued by the agents of Kim Gordon can make you feel awfully jaded. Assayas's new one, Summer Hours, is as boring as anything he's ever done, but the nice thing about it is, it sounds as if it ought to be boring, thus restoring some of your faith in a logical universe.

The movie opens at a family gathering at the country home of the aged but still beautiful matriarch Hélène (played by the veteran actress Edith Scob). It's a beautiful day, and Hélène, her faithful housekeeper (Isabelle Sadoyan), her three adult kids (played by Assayas' favorite leading man, Charles Berling; Juliette Binoche, in a blonde dye job that takes some getting used to; and Jérémie Renier) and their kids sit in the bright sunshine or run around in the fields while Assayas and his cinematographer Eric Gautier (who also shot A Christmas Tale, a family-gathering movie that could eat this one for breakfast) do everything to make you feel wistful about it all short of parade in front of the camera wearing sandwich boards reading "Youth and Beauty Are as Fleeting as Summer Itself!" When the sunblock runs out, everybody can wander into the house and admire mom's vast collection of paintings, antique furniture, and other artworks, which include the sketchbooks of Hélène's uncle, an artist named Paul Berthier. After this long opening section introduces the actors and establishes whatever character traits they're going to have to work with, Hélène dies, and the movie can settle into the real dramatic work at hand: deciding what to do with mom's stash of collectibles.

You might think that the movie is so taken with the idea that a human being's life comes down to the hoarded belongings she's left behind has something to do with how French it is, and you wouldn't entirely be wrong. (It sure sounds classier, coming from Assayas and his characters, than it does from Nick Hornby's boyish men.) Actually, it was the starting point of the movie because the movie was originally commissioned as part of a plan to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay. (So was Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, which included scenes set inside the museum, and which also featured Juliette Binoche being especially lively in dubious-looking hair.) The actors get to express little irritations with those playing their siblings and to cry over the loss of mom and fret over their kids, but the core of the movie is in scenes where curators from the Musée d'Orsay stamp around the house and discuss how badly they want mom's knickknacks (which are in fact pieces on loan to the filmmakers from the museum) and set aside a moment to tear their hair out when they think about those barbarians at Christie's. (Bincohe, who lives in New York, has flirted with the idea of selling the sketchbooks to Christie's, before coming to her senses.) At the end, there's a set piece that's a sort of inverted version of the opening scene, with Berling's teenage daughter taking over grandma's all-but-abandoned house for a weekend party with all her little buddies, who have their whole lives ahead of them and seem very confused by this, maybe because they haven't yet begun to whole-heartedly devote themselves to building their own stockpile of objets d'art and attaching personal memories to them. But Assayas isn't fooling anybody: he's at least as much in his element when the curators are sitting around being huffy about the quality of Art Nouveau furniture they're being offered as when he's trying to stage scenes depicting intimate human behavior. Summer Hours is probably opening about three months too early: who wants to feel wistful about the dying of the light in May? But it is strongly recommended for those who are counting the seconds between episodes of Antiques Roadshow.

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