22 June 2009

Family Ties

Summer Hours [L'heure d'été] - dir. Olivier Assayas - 2008 - France - IFC Films

Written for Gone Cinema Poaching.

Separating Olivier Assayas' films into two camps, the "globe-trotting erotic-thriller" and the "prestige" pic, is an easy action. On a superficial level, Boarding Gate and Summer Hours couldn't be more different. However, when it comes to Assayas' work, most people choose to make the simple connections, such as the one above or noting the similarities between demonlover and Boarding Gate without recognizing their strong dissimilarities. But really, pairing one against the other overlooks the central idea that appears in nearly his entire body of work (I haven't seen any of the films that came before L'eau froide): a search for identity within changing landscapes, even if it's indirect.

In Summer Hours, the search is quite apparent. After the passing of their mother Hélène (Edith Scob), three siblings (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier) must determine how to deal with their family's inheritance, with special consideration for the fact that each of them live on separate continents. Like really all of the director's films, Summer Hours is almost deceptively slight. Assayas keeps the film free of teary melodrama and unwanted sentimentality, restricting his camera from the actual death of Hélène as well as her funeral. Summer Hours isn't about a family's grief; it's about the value, monetary and sentimental, of what's left behind.

Though its persistent honesty is no small feat, the strength of the film reveals itself fully in its final moments. Once it's decided to sell the family home, the two eldest grandchildren (Alice de Lencquesaing, Emile Berling) throw a party in the nearly empty house. As teenagers and loud music occupy the rooms, Assayas takes the film in a place I never expected, though maybe I should have known better as he's always placed great emphasis on his films' closing scenes, even if they seem initially puzzling. As my hands down choice for the best film to hit theatres this year, I'd be surprised to find a film as sublime as Summer Hours in the remaining months of 2009.

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