Summer Hours is the latest film from acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, probably most well-known for his film Irma Vep. This film examines a family dealing with the death of its matriarch. While this is a film that does have its occasional moments of clarity and near-brilliance, it is usually too distracted by its own subterfuge to make any real emotional impact on the audience.
The film opens up well enough with the matriarch Hélène’s 75th birthday party. Here we meet the rest of the family who have been scattered about the world. There is Adrienne, played admirably by Juliette Binoche, who is a designer in New York and Jérémie Renier, who works for Puma in China. Lastly, there is Frédéric (Charles Berling) an economist and family man who lives closest. In the beginning, we see each of the characters get sketched and it is intriguing. There are wonderful scenes both between Berling and Hélène (Edith Scob), when she first mentions the need for him to manage her estate when the time comes which he doesn’t want to hear, and Binoche and Scob when they talk about the tea service is even better and is played with great nuance and subdued emotion and longing by both.
After each Berling and Binoche have their breakdowns, one total and one restrained, the building of character comes to a near stand-still in some ways the narrative comes to a near stop as well. While there were the occasional discussions of an object to mask meaning and emotion in the beginning the dropping of names of painters, china makers, furniture artisans and the like becomes so incessant the people nearly get lost and it ends up feeling almost like an episode of Cash in the Attic.
There is one very heated exchange and then all the characters retreat into their own corner and go about doing their own thing and finding their own way to cope. Which would not be a negative if not for two things: the film was sold as a highly combustible drama in the trailer not a subdued one but more importantly, again the nuance would be more pronounced, more delicate and easier to appreciate if not for all the name-dropping. The scenes where the maid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) come back to get her item and leave her missus flowers are rather moving.
Ultimately, it is a film worth watching. The façade of objects and materialism is quite a subjective thing. Some enjoy it for just that reason. See for yourself and decide what you think. Those who appreciate good acting will definitely enjoy the film for that time alone.