The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Farihah Zaman on Summer Hours
Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours begins in the country home of the Berthier family’s elegant matriarch, Hélène (Edith Scob). Her three children and many grandchildren have come to celebrate her 75th birthday and the publication of a book about her renowned artist uncle and possible one-time lover, Paul Berthier. Serving as a monument to Paul’s work and vast collection of objets d’art, as well as the only real gathering place for Hélène’s far-flung family, the house is filled with beautiful, well worn things that are cherished upon reflection yet taken for granted on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in the garden and looking through the book, the family members see a photograph of an older generation of Berthiers sitting exactly as they are now, reminding everyone how much this place links them to their past.
The familial eventualities Assayas highlights throughout Summer Hours are intrinsic to the collective human social experience—watching parents age and children grow up, relatives navigating the generation gap, siblings trying to get along. That the Berthiers deal with these common issues while never devolving into mere archetypes for the audience to project onto only makes their quiet dramas more deeply felt. Yet the film’s real greatness stems not merely from its exploration of family, but its depiction of a distinctly 21st-century family in particular. In the microcosm of the Berthiers’ story, Assayas finds globalization, commerce, the history and the arbitrary value of objects, and the question of what defines art and what makes art meaningful, themes as grand as anything he explores in his more overtly global pieces like demonlover, Clean, or Boarding Gate, despite the fact that the film takes place entirely in France and features an unmistakably French sensibility. Somehow encompassing the major preoccupations of the decade through the lens of one family, Summer Hours is at once heartbreaking and sweet, nostalgic yet modern, universal yet incredibly personal.
I know part of my deeply emotional response to Summer Hours stems from how uncannily it seems to mirror my own family experience, from the loving, chaotic Berthiers’ home and relationship to art, to the diasporic nature of the family, to its portrayal of the sudden anchorless feeling caused by the packing, selling, and auctioning off of the last place we were collectively tied to. When I first saw Summer Hours, I had just returned from a trip to Kathmandu where I spent most of my time helping my mother pack up the house to move halfway around the continent to Malaysia. My parents had lived in Nepal for the last eight years, the longest they had stayed put anywhere in my lifetime, and sometime between wrapping up my mother’s odd collection of mirrors and discovering my third-grade diary, I realized this was the last place they would live that would have any connection to my childhood. I found myself in a protective panic over household items that I’d casually assumed would have a place in that house forever. It was painful to confront the fact that I’d assumed I would have a place in that house forever, as well.
The same realization hangs over the characters in Summer Hours. During the celebration that opens the film, a prescient Hélène discusses the fate of the estate after her death with her eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), and advises him to sell everything off and free himself and the others from the burden of her history. Despite being an economist best known for proclaiming that the concept of the economy as a functional system is a broken myth, Frédéric is the most sentimental of her children, and he firmly protests. The idea that objects can help create and tie us to history is presented throughout the film as both gift and burden. Frédéric shows his children, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling), two Corot paintings, proudly explaining that they will one day be theirs. He looks upon the paintings with tenderness, but his pleasure is clearly less about their aesthetic qualities than that they are part of a legacy that will be continued as they are passed down to his children, nieces, and nephews. (With an oblivious romanticism that we come to learn is typical of Frédéric, he fails to mention how exactly this complicated arrangement might actually function.) The children, able to look at the paintings without nostalgia or bias, simply say they are old-fashioned. Although Hélène is the one who curated the home with love and care, she echoes their sentiments in describing her possessions as “bric-a-brac from another era.” Frédéric’s sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a New York–based designer of conceptual art, tells her mother that she “prefers objects not weighed down by the past,” but then contradicts her declaration by admitting that her school thesis project was a rip-off of Hélène’s classic silver tea service, adding that “beauty is beauty.” Her conflicted stance most resembles that of the film.
The family reconvenes for Hélène’s funeral; her death is sudden but gently off-screen (the subtlety and complexity of Summer Hours highlights how quaint demonlover, which seemed epochal at the time, has become). Frédéric is shocked and hurt to learn that Adrienne and his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), who works for corporate giant Puma out of Shanghai and will return to France less frequently now that his mother is gone, want to let go of the house. Assayas eschews melodrama and deftly navigates their shifting moods; Jérémie and Adrienne’s genuine regret and discomfort, Frédéric’s quiet despair that only his wife picks up on, the delicate loss and grief they all share, and unexpected moments of warmth and laughter—Adrienne announces that she is getting married and, despite everything, her brothers laugh hysterically, to her dismay until she gives in and joins them. Ironically it’s Frédéric who’s left to handle the bulk of the responsibility in parceling out the estate in the aftermath of his siblings’ decision, in a long series of meetings with lawyers, art appraisers, and museum boards. At every step he’s confronted by the changing world, the practical needs of commerce infringing on his desire to hold onto his more sentimental notions of the past. The priest who buried his mother tells him that they will need to expand the cemetery now that so many new companies have moved in and the village is growing. One of the art appraisers, a local and a family friend, comes to evaluate their pieces and casually remarks that the village location depicted in one of the beloved Corot paintings is now occupied by a supermarket. He also confirms the taboo romantic relationship between Hélène and her uncle after her husband’s death, showing Frédéric once and for all how limited one’s version of events can be, and thus how far he is from his childhood.
With the appraiser’s visit, the objects become the subjects, particularly the house, anthropomorphized by several shots filmed from inside of the siblings or Eloise approaching; looking out through the windows, we seem to be seeing events through the house’s eyes. As we follow these objects’ dispersal, Assayas layers their ascribed value in the larger context of art and society over their sentimental significance to one family. Eloise, for example, chooses as her parting gift an old flower vase because it reminds her of Hélène and she’s too unassuming to choose anything of “real” value. Frédéric, as it turns out, is too shy to tell her that they have just learned moments ago that the “common” vase she’s chosen for reasons of modesty and nostalgia has just been identified by an appraiser as a Bracques and one of the most valuable pieces in the house. While the process of managing an inherited estate might seem like tedious film fodder, in Summer Hours it’s enthralling. We become attached to these objects as though they are our own possessions, and as invested in what becomes of them as Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie. Our intimacy with the family is such that we never lose sight of the emotions at the edges of what has quietly shifted into a drama of commerce. We notice their subtle and sometimes unspoken responses to the proceedings—a brief moment of powerless sadness when Eloise returns to the house on her own for one last look, forced to say goodbye to a home that never entirely belonged to her; the look of acceptance that begins to creep into Frédéric’s face as the sales continue and he tries to shift focus back to his family. The Berthiers are no longer connected by place and so are no longer defined as a family through shared property; they must now be connected by the more arduous methods of memory and affection. The journey of the Berthiers’ belongings lays bare the usually unnoticed dispersal of objects that follows human globalization, the ripples that result from a family disbanding.
Assayas and his frequent cameraman Eric Gautier bring us close to the family, following the characters with long, gentle tracking shots executed with miraculously organic motion. As always with Assayas, the camera is not merely a mechanical device, but a natural extension of the director’s eye. His writing is equally intimate and astute, providing us an immediate window into the kind of familial anecdotes and interactions that feel both mundane and revealing. Scob, Berling, Renier, and Binoche read as a believably real family; from the moment we see them in the same physical space, hugging, arguing, and teasing, they project a warmth and familiarity that’s difficult to capture convincingly on film. Assayas is just as skilled at familiarizing the audience with the house’s inanimate objects (the film’s silent players) as he is at presenting their human counterparts. Intimacy with the family is deepened by learning the kinds of details we might otherwise only know about our own homes, like which vase to put the flowers in, the best pan in the house for roasting chicken, that a valuable antique armoire the Musée d’Orsay wishes to acquire houses decades-old toy airplanes, and that the pieces of a Degas plaster the boys broke as children sit in an ordinary plastic bag in the study because Hélène never had the heart to throw them away.
In a scene near the end of the film, we find ourselves in a neutral, sterile space unlike any we’ve yet seen. A group of people passes by, listening intently to a guide speaking in English, and we see all but one of them (chatting on a cell phone) pause to look at something with interest. The camera turns and, with a beautiful jolt, as if recognizing an old friend, we see another of the Bracques vases that formerly belonged to the Berthiers. Assayas never overplays his hand, trusting that our knowledge of this vase will lend enough drama to the scene. The camera turns again, and we see Frédéric and his wife taking in the vase with a very different gaze than that of the strangers: with familiarity, awe, and an almost hesitant shyness about its new, formal surroundings. Something that once belonged to them, a thing of utility in their private, everyday lives, has been outwardly stripped of personal meaning and put on display.
Summer Hours ends with a lovely mirror image of its opening, offering a clean slate for what was once weighed down by history. Sylvie and Pierre have convinced their parents to allow them one last hurrah in the empty house, and they invite their friends over for the kind of killer party most teenagers only dream about. In a long series of tracking shots, we follow Sylvie as she moves through the house, everyone laughing, drinking, dancing, every room filled with a joyous kinetic energy we would never have expected possible in that once stately place. Stripped of so many laden objects, the house finally ceases to belong to the Berthiers, and for this fleeting moment in time is filled with the potential to belong to anyone, to create new and unexpected memories—a bittersweet yet oddly liberating fact. Standing in a field with her boyfriend picking strawberries, Sylvie has a moment of déjà vu. She recalls a painting that Paul did of her grandmother picking strawberries in this very field. She moves this way and that, trying to remember the angle from which Paul painted her. It’s like the rush of history from the photograph at the beginning of the film, except the painting is no longer there for her to refer to, there is no book or photograph; the family’s history must live through memory. Once the shadow of an older generation’s nostalgia briefly flickers across Sylvie’s face, she shakes it off, dashes, laughing, into the woods. I dry my tears, the wind blows, and the clouds roll by.