Summer Hours is a splendid film. Simply splendid.
It details the life of a French family as they try to distribute their deceased mother’s estate. Writer-director Olivier Assayas, whose primarily French body of work North American audiences probably will not recognize, does a marvellous job crafting the experience of grief.
The film is shown mainly from the viewpoint of the elder brother FrÃ©dÃ©ric, played by Charles Berling, who is appointed executor of the estate. HÃ©lÃ©ne, the mother, devoted her later years to maintaining and safe-guarding the collection of her uncle, Paul Berthier, an accomplished French painter and avid collector.
The tricky thing, and the reason that Summer Hours is a truly wonderful film, is that Assayas doesn’t use any of the typically evocative movie moments that we associate with death. His characters rarely break down into tears. They don’t throw themselves onto the casket and curse the gods; in fact, the burial is never shown, neither is the mother’s death.
The film lives exclusively in the small but monumental moments: the mother’s last birthday, the evening after the funeral, the packaging of the household. The plot isn’t bogged down by a lot of sentimental moping, but the scenes are still so packed with energy that it makes the viewer realize how much drama there is in the mundane. Very common, practical things become gut-wrenching.
Assayas spends a good deal of time outlining the history of each object in the mother’s collection, touring through the ancient and ramshackle house that holds them, and by doing so he creates an important sensation for the audience. The audience becomes familiar with the pieces, not only as art but as heirlooms that all hold special significance for the family: this piece was collected in a certain year, that piece was given to an ancestor, this was your great uncle’s final sketch and so on.
In the end, the film is about context and about how little that means to the outside world. As the family distribute their goods to the outside world, it becomes clear that their value as historical or monetary items is worth less than their value as memories.
They are selling off little pieces of their mother by selling her greatest passion and they are caging their memories away in museums where they lose their emotional meanings in place of very literal ones.