Like the prose of Virginia Woolf, the films of Olivier Assayas seem built out of one-thing-and-then-another, a fluid staging of long pans and tracking shots in which all sorts of objects and gazes and gazers are all found out and linked together (almost as in the back-and-forth sewing-like motions of Robert Beavers’ films). Where the long, winding tracking shots of a tracking master like Max Ophüls might hint at a maze drawing the characters deeper and deeper into entrapment, and are set up as in an anticipatory past tense, Assayas’ own shots are more like stream-of-consciousness present-tense, in which the camera lingers over objects as it connects them into a coherent scene—as it happens upon them and passes them by. Done by someone else, these could be arbitrary motions; for Assayas, it’s a way of highlighting what’s relevant to a scene without ever being able to stop long enough to fully capture any of it.
Without being too reductive, it’s that sense of transition and the transitory that structures his near-nomadic films: Paris Awakens (1991) and Cold Water (1994) stream from individual stories of school and home life—civilization—to larger ones of ragtag squatters and their makeshift parties, Irma Vep (1996) imperceptibly from reality to fantasy and back, and forth, Late August, Early September (1998) from one life to another, Les Destinées (2000) from one generation to another, demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), and Boarding Gate (2007) from one country to another. All of his last three movies—Boarding Gate, his thriller, Eldorado (2008), his dance documentary, and now Summer Hours—have the same set-up: relatively still, fastened-down scenes of characters discussing and disputing and perhaps rehearsing or role-playing for more critical decisions and routines ahead. Eventually, talk gives way to action as the energy built up by these preparatory scenes bursts out in a final, fluid act with all of Assayas’ usual untethered fly-by movements. It’s the hint of freedom that Assayas characters, every bit as exploratory as his camerawork, always go looking for; finally, in these last three, the movie—characters and camera both—moves.
In Summer Hours, an aristocratic family of siblings inherits their ancestral house after their mother’s death; everyone has business to attend to elsewhere, and so they set about selling the family heirlooms to museums and collectors (shades of Tokyo Story II). Distracted by cell phones and deals in Asia—Assayas’ characters, often to their own disgust, always seem to be the products of their times, while just after Boarding Gate, globalization continues to be the specter here fucking up personal relationships—the family here seems to be in touch with just about everything but the past. Actually, there are a number of pasts the house and heirlooms invoke: not just the long-lost times in which they were created, or for which they were created, but the more recent past of the characters’ childhood, to which such objects seem a last tentative link. It’s a token of both Assayas’ sympathy and his characters’ own that the character who tells us this is the dying mother, as she asks that the objects, which represent so many stages of her own life, be sold to museums after her death. That is, she recognizes the objects’ personal value for her family just as she recognizes that value is long in the past; the objects are, in so many ways, just reminders of some unrecoverable eras.
Sentimentality by both director and characters is put aside in favor of such practicality, which is why the film is so awfully sad: selling off the objects really isn’t practical at all. If, again, it’s part of Assayas’ ongoing project to recontextualize objects within scenes, to link them with the everyday experiences of people around them, his melancholy for a past detached from the present—the two feasibly connected by the surrounding countryside and nature, which the family will renounce along with the house for cities—his disdain for museums that lock objects and art off from everyday life and experience comes inevitable. When, in Summer Hours, a long-time servant makes off with a highly-valued antique vase to put her flowers in (here, renewal always seems to be found in the flowers), it’s Assayas’ affirming personal history over textbook art history, which is to say, personal value over quantified value, use-value over exchange. More interesting, the rest of the family feels likewise and lets her keep it, even while they sell off the rest of the collection. Self-concern doesn’t preclude a sense of compassion; it just makes that sense of compassion all the more pathetic, when the characters constantly act as they would with or without it. Summer Hours may be Assayas’ most scathing movie precisely because it’s his most sympathetic.
But the most scathing and sympathetic element, by far, is the ending, the ultimate in transitions and the transitory. Just as one generation has discarded the remnants of another—that same dream of the teenagers in Assayas’ early films here made the brokering of the haute bourgeoisie—Assayas discards these traders and dealers altogether for the younger generation that will eventually overtake them. The daughter of one of the brothers has a party at the old family house just before it’s to be abandoned. In the first act of Summer Hours, cut fast so that, as usual for Assayas, everything is seen in glimpses, there’s evidence of life being lived: couples helping each other garden, books being read, dogs running in the background. It’s that sense of living that returns after two acts of negotiations, as kids dance and walk and play in the river. Assayas’ camera regains his boundary-breaking free-roam, from the film’s first shot—also of kids—as though, for once, people can do what they want without worrying about compromises. Of course, the house is finally used on the day it’s being given up, and of course, these kids will probably grow up to discard their parents and become them and start to worry about things and technology; the effect of Assayas’ perpetual motion, as one space changes into another and one person replaces another, is not simply a valedictory sense of freedom, but, quite the opposite, a sense of fleeting as teens and movie both take refuge in play from more annoying changes up ahead and all around. In the final shot of the film, two teens climb a fence, and the camera rises up with them. Then they jump down, and the camera keeps rising. It’s a crane shot à la Mizoguchi. That Assayas frames them, as Mizoguchi like would, from a cosmic high-angle, makes them look all alone in the world, or from the world. Here, though, it’s probably a good thing.
Part II of our coverage of Summer Hours, our interview with writer/director Olivier Assayas, can be found here.