The melancholy French film Summer Hours finds a new wrinkle on the adage “The past is prologue.” For the three grown siblings of the Marly family, the present feels like an epilogue to events that occurred when they were so young, they can barely remember them.
The film opens with the 75th birthday of sprightly matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) at the family’s country home. Aware of her impending death, Hélène frequently harks back to the legacy of her uncle, a renowned painter. The past has such a powerful hold on the setting and characters that you almost expect director Olivier Assayas to flash back to the splendors of a previous generation at the sunny estate.
Early on Hélène dies, leaving the siblings to work out what to do with the home and its Art Nouveau furniture and artwork. First-born Frédéric (Charles Berling) wants to hang onto everything to preserve the memory of his elders and pass it down to the children, but with his sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) living on other continents, they regretfully decide to sell. Binoche’s blond bangs and earthy impulses make the Oscar-winning actress nearly unrecognizable, and generally Summer Hours features understated but deeply felt performances. The relatives don’t lash out at each other, but are cut to the quick by the loss of the old homestead.
Assayas’s work can go in weird directions, evidenced by his knotty, corporate cyber-thriller Demonlover. He reins in these provocative tendencies for Summer Hours’ soft-spoken realism, which he explicitly compared to Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Step by step, the film uses art appraisals and discussion of estate taxes to show how the Marly home becomes divided up into its component objects, the functional “living” pieces transformed into sterile museum pieces. Implicitly, Summer Hours dramatizes the liquidation of France’s cultural legacy by contemporary forces – not coincidentally, Adrienne and Jérémie live in America and China, respectively. At one point, Adrienne teases her brother’s career making Puma sneakers at Chinese factories as “the wave of the future.”
Occasionally, characters hint that Hélène and her uncle shared a passion that went deeper than simply art appreciation. Where a different kind of French film would’ve put a taboo-breaking relationship front and center, Summer Hours leaves it as simply one of those unknowable family rumors. By the end, the film hints that since death is permanent, clinging to a material inheritance may be a vain attempt to keep the past alive. In the final scenes, a group of noisy teens enjoy one last hurrah at the summer house, suggesting that, after mourning the dead, the survivors should live for today.