Summer Hours

A world away from the transient spaces—the hotels and the airports—of his recent films demonlover and Boarding Gate, Olivier Assayas’ new film is an eloquent observation of an extended family in transition. The film focuses on two brothers and a sister: a New York-based designer, Juliette Binoche in a superb performance—gone blond and dressed mostly in fluoro-coloured hoodies; an economist and university professor played by Charles Berling (demonlover); and a high-flying businessman Jérémie Renier (Atonement; In Bruges). They come together one last time to sell their late mother’s gorgeous old country house in which they spent their summers—as well as its contents, which includes paintings and other ornate works of art, plus a few valuable fine porcelain tea sets and the like. This is less a traditional three-act narrative than a slowly-unfolding peek at a family in flux, passing on life lessons to their children as they regard their and their parents’ lives in retrospect.

The film seems as interested—if not moreso—in the countryside setting than in its characters, which is in this case definitely not a bad thing, given Assayas’ forte for delivering wonderful images on broad canvasses—something his recent films have eschewed in favour of jet-setting businesspeople. Gone are the flashy, shiny surfaces of demonlover, for example, and in their place languid, almost deliberately hazy shots that observe the ebb and flow of time through the years—hinting, just about, at the many lazy Sunday afternoons the children passed in the gardens and the river that runs through it. Assayas has a knack for framing his characters with blocks of colour: here, in the countryside those colours are verdant, deep greens, blues and amber tones; in the city, they’re off-whites, dark browns and creamy colours. The camera stays relatively motionless throughout; only once—in the final sequence, when a new generation discovers the many pleasures of the now-practically-decaying house and its leafy surrounds—does it change gear into what critics like to call Assayas’ “party” mode: following a character from behind through rooms and doorways, both indoors and out of doors, giving a vivacious, spritely atmosphere to a scene. A few subtle, carefully-chosen cello pieces are the perfect aural icing on an already delectable cake.