Far be it from me to call this coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. I saw Olivier Assayas new film playing at the film market here, and I readily admit that I jumped at the chance to see a film by one of the world's best directors that has already been released in France but has inexplicably gone without distribution in the U.S. So here is something from Cannes, that's not at Cannes.
With all praise due to Olivier Assayas' technophiliac/technophobic recent films that bend and twist space and time as befits this globalized, postmodern world, his latest film Summer Hours is a breath of fresh air, if only because it is grounded in an old age: that of objects, and the memories and history kept in them.
It also begins in fresh air, at the country respite of an aging family matriarch (Edith Scob) during her birthday where her children and grandchildren putter around the estate with a loose, cool freedom, easy and active. Yet as we know, cataclysm drives the narrative energy of an Assayas picture, so there is only so much of the refreshing countryside sounds and the nervous languor one feels playing catch-up with Assayas' one-step-ahead storytelling as time stops and we spend the afternoon with the family before something abrupt will change everything.
Indeed, when the grandmother brings up her imminent death to her son Frédéric (Charles Berling) and we begin to see the attitudes of the other family members—Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), away in American designing modern porcelain, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), working in China running shoe factories—it quickly becomes clear the old woman's presence is a keystone keeping the family's summer house, collection of art, and legacy of the old woman's beloved uncle, a painter, alive. The skittish, semi-tragic characters of all of Assayas are still here, but contrasted for the first time in a while not with their own environment—the New World of globalization—but rather with the weight and meaning of old, physical things, invested with personal remembrances and value.
It is simple, and not deceptively so, and often even a bit corny, but Summer Hours retains a sentimentality unavailable to the brittle trans-international worlds of Boarding Gate and demonlover, movies where a fade to black after a woman weeps or a man hangs his head in the dark is dramatically and even realistically impossible. It's going back again, like Les Destinées sentimentales, to a sad, dying world, but unlike the sprawl of that period picture, this is a small film on a small subject, with minor, utterly regular characters who are themselves and nothing more—in a few words, a relief and a respite, a modest elegy. And it is a generous respite, one that is not afraid to bluntly point out that Frédéric, the sole sibling who longs for keeping the house and its contents, savoring his memories to an unrealistic degree, is not the kindly nostalgic father we assume him to be. Nor, most beautifully and generously of all, is the ending— of a house sold, legacies tarnished, heirlooms dispersed—a tragedy but rather an ambivalent affirmation of the mobility, interchange, intercourse, and tenderness of youth. What was once a studio, then a summer house, and now fated to be owned by some stranger becomes that which haunts a great deal of Assayas' recent cinema: transient space. But unlike the airports and hotels of those films, here the transience is joyful: Frédéric's daughter throws a weekend party at her grandmother's house, and affirms the splendor of the young at the very instant in space and time it mourns the passing of the old.