Summer Hours, a wonderful new French film by contemporary French director Olivier Assayas, has earned multiple awards. It is personal, at times even moving, look at family life that provides a rather wonderful amazing look into the realities of a globalized modern family in France.
The story is rather simple. Three siblings, played by Charles Berling, Jérémie Rénier and Juliette Binoche, must decide what to do with their countryside estate, an hour outside of Paris, when their mother (the last of her generation) passes away. They inherit what amounts to a fortune in art, art that can not be easily sold, and a home with a lot of childhood memories but with little relevance to their lives in the present. They also have a lot to discover about their late mother, and her relationship to their late uncle, when they discover that she really loved him more than their own father. The reason for all this family tension becomes clear very early in the film. The global economy has pulled these adults all over the world— as far as San Francisco and China. Only one of the three siblings still lives in France and only rarely, sometimes in the summer, do they all meet at their old summer home filled with all its artistic treasures, secluded terrain and glorious memories. It is these memories, and the way they are dealt with in their new world context, that make the film so richly human. The result is a contextually nuanced drama about how a family tries to deal with modernity. Having been through the breakup of our old family homes (including some years ago a family summer home in Wisconsin that was in my wife’s family), and having removed the family treasures from several family houses (all four of our parents are now deceased) I could relate to this film on a deeply emotional level.
Summer Hours offers a moving tribute to the depth and bonds of family love yet it shows how difficult it is to deal with intensely emotional issues that mark all our lives inside family relationships. There are modest disputes and frank expressions of emotion and fear in Summer Hours but in the end these three siblings care about each other in the best way that they can, which is always with refreshing honesty.
The one emotional downer is seeing a modern, loving and successful family face death without any obvious hope of what comes beyond the grave. There is a simple reference to the priest who did the small memorial service for their mom, and a scene of the cemetery where the mother is buried. Later there is a scene of her grave. Before she dies she talks about death as if it would be the end of her conscious existence. There is, in other words, no spiritual hope to be found in Summer Hours. This is not surprising given the almost completely secular culture of modern France but it is eye-opening since I have been where this film takes the viewer but experienced the power of prayer and hope flooding the experience that I endured in Christ.
Summer Hours is in French with English subtitles and is 103 minutes in length. A second disc includes an excellent interview with Assayas as well as some behind the scenes interviews and deleted scenes, etc. I give it 3 ½ stars out of 5.