Chris Wisniewski on Summer Hours
Greek amphoras for wine or oil
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry.
—Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”
The maid takes the vase because she thinks no one would want it, because she believes it has no value.
In Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, Hélène (Edith Scob), the matriarch of a French family, passes away somewhat unexpectedly, leaving her three children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), to determine the fate of her estate. The centerpiece of this inheritance is a country home outside of Paris—itself the bequest of Hélène’s uncle (and, likely, lover), a notable painter—and the objects within it: two Corot paintings and an exceptional collection of art nouveau objects and furniture that includes a Christofle platter, a desk by Louis Majorelle, an Antonin Daum vase, and two other vases by Félix Bracquemond, to name just a few of the exquisite, deceptively everyday items the family has been living with over long weekends and August escapes for decades.
Prior to her death, Hélène encourages Frédéric, the one sibling to have stayed in France, to review the inventory of the house’s possessions and prepare for the inevitable task of breaking up and divesting this collection. Since many of these objects are museum pieces in the most literal sense—the Musée d’Orsay has strong interest—this is a great responsibility. Frédéric shies from it. For him, the house has sentimental value, and the objects within it are heavy with generations of memories. He can’t imagine parting with the Corots, for example, even if he realizes that his children don’t care about the paintings. Though these objects are treasures to Hélène—they carry “the residue” of a life lived, she explains—she understands a difficult truth that Frédéric does not: to the people who will inherit them, these objects are simply “bric-a-brac from another era.”
When it comes time for the three siblings to decide together what they’ll do with this bric-a-brac, Frédéric makes the mistake of assuming the house and the objects within it have the same value to Adrienne and Jérémie as they do to him. But Adrienne is a designer who lives in the United States, embarking on a new marriage (not her first). The collection is out of step with her own strong aesthetic sensibility (“You prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” her mother tells her), and she’ll make it to France at most once a year, hardly enough reason to own a stake in a property that functions as a private museum commemorating their dead great-uncle and their mother. Jérémie, meanwhile, is firmly committing to a permanent residence in Beijing with his family. For him, the one-third share of the estate will provide a considerable financial lift as he starts a life on a different continent. And so it becomes clear that the objects that catalogued their mother’s life mean as little to Hélène’s children as the cordless phone they gave her on her final birthday meant to Hélène.
The fate of the estate is debated over dinner and drinks, and Frédéric sees the house slipping away in real time, as he, his siblings, and his and Jérémie’s wives confer on the subject. In short order, there are talk of an auction and questions about how to maximize the market value of the items their mother loved. Frédéric retreats to a separate room to cry gently for a place and for things that mean more to him than they do to Adrienne and Jérémie. He has misapprehended how much those things mean to them. For him they’re a legacy; for them, commodities.
He makes the same mistake with Hélène’s longtime maid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan). Once the decisions have been handed down to work with the d’Orsay and the auction houses, Frédéric returns to oversee the packing of the collection, the last moment at which it can be thought of as a complete, coherent whole. As the house is being emptied, Éloïse visits. She carries with her asters, Hélène’s favorite flower, and wanders as she sees the objects she’s worked around and with for the better part of her life carefully packed by art handlers. This sequence offers symmetry with and counterpoint to several brief passages in the movie’s opening movement, where we watch Éloïse prepare a meal for Hélène and her brood. As she moves through the space the first time, Éloïse treats Hélène’s valuable treasures as functional objects—a vase for cut flowers, glasses for brandy. Where Hélène sees echoes of her beloved uncle in every item that surrounds her and also artifacts of great value, Éloïse sees form and function. (Decades after the fact, Hélène and her family bemoan the lost Daum vase, a partner to the one remaining, which they believe Éloïse broke because she found it to be ugly.)
Before parting with Frédéric, Éloïse inadvertently separates another pair of vases. Frédéric wishes to acknowledge the bond between Éloïse and Hélène. That Éloïse thought to bring Helene’s favorite flowers is testament to that bond. And so, Frédéric suggests that she choose one object to take as a souvenir. Éloïse chooses a “green vase with bubbles,” suggesting that it will remind her of Hélène every time she fills it with fresh flowers. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and so Frédéric allows her to take one of the Bracquemonds that was destined for the d’Orsay. If the gesture offers Frederic some level of solace, it is for him alone: “I couldn’t take advantage,” Éloïse confides to her nephew on her way out. “I took something ordinary. What would I do with something valuable?”
The gift means more to the giver than to the person receiving it. Much like the telephone left in the empty house, still unopened in its box. Hélène had no use for a phone.
Throughout his career, in films as varied as demonlover, Boarding Gate, and Personal Shopper, Assayas has demonstrated a keen interest in post-industrial global capitalism, interrogating how commodities, bodies, and identities are trafficked in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Summer Hours’ siblings are the perfect embodiment of this interrogation. In Adrienne and Jérémie, Assayas offers two figures who could only exist in an internationalist now(ish). Their rootlessness and ability to cross borders and leave home behind stand in contrast to the deep sense of place enshrined by the house, which serves as the film’s opening image. Like their late great-uncle, both could be seen as earning a living in a creative industry, Adrienne being a designer and Jérémie working for a sneaker manufacturer. Jérémie, however, presents corporate with his business suits and Beijing address, while New Yorker Adrienne, with her dyed blonde hair, bold peach and yellow hoodies, and effervescent coolness, presents artsy. But she is devoting herself to designing an accessory line for a chain of Japanese department stores. In truth, Adrienne and Jérémie are two sides of the same coin—they’re slyly constructed metaphors for the creative economy.
Frédéric, meanwhile, is an actual economist. The film offers several vague asides regarding the substance of his thought, but little that is specific. The most explicit reference comes when Frédéric guests on a radio show, in which we learn that Frédéric’s provocative theories label the modern economy, in the words of a noteworthy radio personality, as a sham, a superstition, and a fetish object. Though he’s presented as a radical, one could infer a meaning from his words that is quite commonplace, even foundational: that the modern economy is based on shared belief in the value of goods, services, and currencies, and that this shared belief is a mutually agreed upon fiction. A vase, a house, a Euro, or a sneaker doesn’t have any value in and of itself. Value is not intrinsic to the thing but determined by the vicissitudes of supply and (of course) demand.
Despite his intellectual training, Frédéric spends the movie ignoring or, perhaps, overlooking this calculus. For Jérémie and Adrienne, the market value of the house means more to them than its sentimental value. Frédéric sees it as priceless. Frédéric believes the Corot paintings have unquestionable worth, but he is informed that their value on the art market “is hard to gauge.” And Frédéric senses that a vase highly sought after by one of the world’s leading museums would carry the same value—albeit sentimental—for Éloïse. But he is wrong. He mistakes his own values for others’ and for market values.
These misapprehensions comport with the nearly hall-of-mirrors quality Assayas establishes as his characters and the institutions with which they engage assess and reassess the meaning and value of the estate. Over and apart from the consideration of whether the siblings want the house and its objects, and what their value on an open market might be, stands the Musée d’Orsay as an alternate marker of value and worth. (It’s worth noting here that Summer Hours, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, was commissioned by the d’Orsay as part of what was intended to be a larger series of films commemorating its 20th anniversary). Museum collections, at least in theory, exist at a remove from considerations of market value. (In the United States, this is one reason why a temporary hiatus on the longstanding prohibition on art museums from selling items in their collections to fund operations generated so much controversy during the pandemic). When the team at the d’Orsay meets to debate the acquisition, they question whether the objects will be exhibited or simply sit in storage. For Éloïse, the decision to select the vase is justified by its use: she will fill it with flowers, and in doing so remember Hélène. For the d’Orsay, the value of accessioning the other vase is in a different kind of use: being seen. Or perhaps the vase will sit in a basement.
In an extraordinary sequence near the end of the film, Frédéric and his wife visit the museum when the collection is on display. They witness a largely indifferent tour group stop at their family’s treasures and then move on, oblivious to the remarkable qualities that make these pieces worthy additions to the d’Orsay. Frédéric tells his wife about the Bracquemond he gave to Éloïse and bemoans the fate of the museum’s vase on the grounds that “Vases mean something in flowers with natural light.” He describes the museum pieces, by contrast, as “inanimate.” She protests that in this space, the collection exists to be looked at, that it’s there “for everyone.” And it feels again like Frédéric is missing something. As Assayas’s constantly roving camera pauses to consider the vase in its museum habitat catching the sunlight through the window, I was reminded of a sentiment Adrienne expresses to her mother at her birthday celebration, considering a teapot that wasn’t particularly to her taste at the country house: “Beauty is beauty.”
If no one pauses to perceive the beauty, though, to apprehend it, is it still beauty? Perhaps it doesn’t matter for the vase, however, because Assayas forces us to stop and look at it.
The last time we see Éloïse, she returns to the house. After traversing the exterior, she peers through a window at the empty living space, now itself inanimate. Hélène’s phone sits unopened. After a cut, Éloïse is carrying fresh flowers again. She doesn’t need a vase, though. She’s walking to Hélène’s gravestone, where she lays them in tribute. This act reveals that there was something genuine in her claim to Frédéric that the act of cutting and preparing flowers would remind her of the person they’d both lost. The gesture has value, meaning, and worth. The vase—Éloïse’s priceless souvenir—was incidental to the meaningful act of remembering her employer and friend. Who knows, it might be stuffed in a cabinet or already regifted to an oblivious relative; it might make its way to a museum collection or get lost or broken or forgotten.
The vase doesn’t matter; human connection does. Beauty is beauty.