Reviews - Summer Hours
Reviewed By John Stakes
Summer Hours however is very much a middle class film about middle class people, a family saga centred on the crumbling country home not far from Paris of Hélène (Edith Scob), a seventy five year old matriarch who adored her art collector uncle at the expense of her artisan husband. Just as we were getting to know the somewhat acerbic Hélène she dies leaving behind two sons and a daughter who are left to decide the fate of their great-uncle’s art collection which turned out to be more valuable than expected.
The film initially seemed to set out as a relationship-based family drama about inheritance but developed more into a superficial study of the nature and purpose of personal wealth. But the overall feeling for this reviewer was that Assayas was unsure what he wanted or where he should take his film. There were one or two mini-plots which were never expanded, and an outrageous piece of product placement as the film’s sponsors the Musée D’Orsay took us on an unnecessary tour of their premises for no obvious reason apart from to show us just how much they valued their work and the various original pieces which they had loaned to the filmmakers.
Consequently the film began to drift despite some adroit work by Assayas as he tried to persuade us there was a significant amount going on by constant camera movement particularly in the opening and closing party scenes when we seemed to be rubbing shoulders with most of the guests. Differences between Hélène’s children over what they should do with their inheritance were resolved without any raised voices let alone rancour so there were no dramatic moments or denouement. Perhaps the director’s sights were set no higher than simply asking us to reflect on the true significance of material acquisition. Assayas has said in interview that the project had started out as a short and was developed when the museum showed interest. This reviewer had a similar feeling when Shane Meadows extended his distinctly under-whelming Somers Town from his Eurotunnel sponsored short.
Despite some good ensemble acting from the very reliable but not particularly engaging cast the star of the film was clearly the rambling old house itself which, as the housekeeper tellingly revealed, only came to life twice in the year as the family descended on Hélène from home and abroad. The party scenes which topped and tailed the film proved to be the most interesting: in the first the house and garden were revealed as a magical playground for Helene’s grandchildren when young and a source of nostalgic regret when they came to visit for a student farewell party when the house was about to be sold.
There was a whiff of Gallic detachment and sophistication throughout (which so often typifies French film making) which served to emphasise the film’s rather empty feel so one’s sympathies lay almost exclusively with the fate of the house. There is speculation that Assayas plans to make the film the first of a series so perhaps there is more of the house to come.
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