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Summer Hours
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by Martin Schoo

"Life, death, and cigarette smoking: it must be a French film"
3 stars

Summer Hours begins with a treasure hunt: an excited rabble of children running eagerly through vast grounds from clue to hidden clue, the oldest two providing amused guidance. Their parents are preparing a meal back at a grand country house, which, stuffed with its own innumerable treasures, plays host to this noisy blur of generations.

The matriarch of this wealthy clan is Helene, a spirited but fragile woman, whose intact, elegant beauty contrasts with her rather single-minded nature, which verges on the obsessive. She lives alone but for her loyal housekeeper Eloise in this massive rural retreat, presiding over valuable objects and memories like a secretary banished to comfortable limbo. Central to her concerns is the preservation of her beloved uncle’s memory, a reasonably well-known artist whose unseen presence lingers over proceedings, and touches all his descendents whether they knew him or not.

Helene steers the conversation briskly, and brittle barbs are never far from the surface as she efficiently conducts proceedings. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and seems emotionally remote beneath her outgoing veneer. She can only manage an uninterested ‘rings a bell’ when her eldest child tells her he’s written another book. She has genuine affection for her children, but her mind is elsewhere. The problem is that she’s in love with the past, and the reminders of her uncle that constantly surround her.

All Helene talks of on this glorious summer afternoon is her age, her death and her will. The latter is addressed in a matter-of-fact way, as though merely another business deal. Objects’ histories, approximate values, potential museum pieces – her offspring know these statistics by heart, like dry, fiscal versions of bedtime stories.

For all the passion of her past that lives on for her in these objects, Helene is wise enough to be passionless and rational about the burdens (both financial and spiritual) they might present her children and their descendents.

‘You prefer objects not weighed down by the past,’ she notes perceptively to her daughter Adrienne. Thus she reduces her belongings to price tags – she loves her children too much to pass on the responsibility of guarding her uncle’s memory.

When she unexpectedly dies a year or so later, her children are faced with the problem of dividing her estate. Here the film looks at the impact of globalisation: Adrienne works in NY and Japan, and has a US boyfriend, while Jeremie works for a shoe manufacturer in China. They are no longer residents of their homeland but citizens of the world. What time do they have for a mansion in the French countryside? Disappointed, Frederic accepts the reality his mother had foreseen. Tensions with his siblings are overcome, but his grief at this symbolic loss is not, and he cries silent, frustrated tears as his memories are unmoored from their physical roots.

Helene’s death unearths some skeletons. The relationship with her uncle, it transpires, was much closer than that between most family members – a badly kept secret that interestingly enough provokes more understanding than discomfort in her friends and relatives. Their bond was unusually strong, unusually meaningful. And for Helene, it seems as though any true happiness or meaning died with him.

The film makes its simple point effectively: life is what you make of it – down to the objects that surround us. Life is people and their memories, not just the objects they used. Objects are chameleons, with different values for different people.

A particularly poignant moment encapsulates this point. When given the option to choose an item to remember Helene by, Eloise opts for a modest-looking vase. She takes it for two reasons: so that she can remember her every time she renews the bouquet, and secondly as she explains to her nephew, because it was a worthless plain thing.
‘What would I do with something valuable?’ she asks casually, as she hobbles back to the car. Unbeknownst to her, it is a priceless museum piece, and its counterpart sits in a museum, glanced at by the masses on a daily basis. Which vase is worth more? the film seems to ask.

Summer Hours is a gentle, meandering journey: a reflection on life’s meaning and inescapable change.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17882&reviewer=423
originally posted: 05/03/09 01:33:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 12th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 12th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/22/10 Ionicera good cinematography but weak on plot - subtle to the point of frivolity 3 stars
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  DVD: 20-Apr-2010


  DVD: 20-Apr-2010

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