In Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas negotiates with a clear-eyed, unfussy delicacy the tensions between nostalgia - the emotional residues that attach to the buildings and objects of a person’s past - and the demands of modern life, and while the filmmaker understands an acceptance of the latter as a necessity, he nonetheless suffuses his picture with the grace notes of unmistakable elegy. We may need to discard the physical baggage of our past in order to live in an increasingly global, rootless world, Assayas suggests, but that doesn’t mean that something valuable isn’t lost in the transaction.
In the film's first scene, three generations of a family reunite at a country house – the kids gambol around followed by Assayas’ camera in long tracking shots, their parents politely bicker, each concerned with his own professional life, and everyone understands that these summer meetings are coming to an end. No one is less equivocal on this point than the family matriarch, 75 year-old Hélène (Edith Scob), who gives her eldest son a lengthy tour of the house’s numerous objets d’art – amassed by the older woman’s painter uncle (and possible lover) – in preparation for selling them off upon her death. The son insists that they’ll keep the house, but the mother knows better: her kids don’t have time for these meetings anymore and, besides, they need the money.
As befitting a work that takes nostalgia as a central theme, the film spends more time reflecting back on events than in depicting them. After the opening sequence, Assayas elides an art opening and a funeral (Hélène’s) and turns to a conversation between the deceased’s three children as they bring us up to speed on past events and make plans for the future. The eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), registers a plea for keeping the place, but his globally-oriented siblings Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) – a designer living in New York – and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) – a factory owner about to move to China - outvote him and much of the rest of the film is devoted to the process of selling off the artwork.
In a central scene, appraisers from the Musée d’Orsay come to the house and make a lengthy survey of the holdings. Assayas’ decision to devote a significant block of screen time to the cataloguing of these pieces both emphasizes the weight of what is being given up and documents with cold precision the process by which the personal is transformed into the public, as the appraisers view the items not as objects with a sentimental history but as fresh additions to a more impersonal collection. This odd transmutation that occurs when private collections become institutionalized finds its fit philosophic expression in a later scene when Frédéric and his wife visit Orsay and watch an indifferent school class walk by one of Hélène’s pieces. Bemoaning the fate of these objects that once meant so much, Frédéric understands that in the new setting, the residues of the piece have largely dissipated to be replaced by the cursory stares of bored schoolchildren more concerned with chatting on cell phones. But the scene ends with the film’s most stunning image as the camera tracks over a neatly arranged display of vases, the objects positively shimmering in their glass case, a different if equally potent aura returned by Assayas’ gaze to the displaced artworks.
Summer Hours concludes by turning its attention to the next generation, an approach that initially feels like a misstep when Assayas shoehorns in a seemingly incongruous sequence where Frédéric’s daughter is caught shoplifting and her father has to pick her up at the police station. But when in the picture’s last scene, the children throw a final party at the country house (no one above 16 appears to be present), and Assayas gives semi-celebratory expression to the sort of reckless behavior of youth that the shoplifting seemed to prefigure, the film continues its progression of generational inheritance and ends by asking what relationship contemporary teenagers, who often appear locked unerringly into the present, have to the objects of the past that proved so prominent in the emotional lives of their forebears. And the answer is that these objects do continue to play a role, a role that may be defined by a weakly articulated nostalgia that has no thought of realization, but which, for a generation often characterized by an ignorance of what came before, serves as a reminder that a regard for that past has not been totally obliterated from its consciousness. And on that note of bittersweet elegy – accepting the inevitable, while evincing a sadness for what’s left behind - Assayas brings his remarkable film to a close.