Sunday, January 30, 2011

Summer Hours

Summer Hours is a museum piece, in the strictest sense of the term. Commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, this gentle family drama by Olivier Assayas could easily hang somewhere on the walls of that institution. Now, there’s no great sin in hanging in a museum—certainly not one like the Orsay, where some of the greatest masterworks of the 19th century would keep you company—but Assayas seems saddened at how art once so vital can be mummified by its own beauty. One can only wonder at how the Orsay responded to this film, which suggests the worth of each piece has little to do with the institution, and more to do with the private histories and personal meanings that can never be contained within a museum.

The story Summer Hours tells is one of clarity and elegant simplicity, marked by subdued emotions and the soft light that suffuses its pastoral scenery. Three grown siblings—Adrienne, Frederic, and Jeremie—reunite to dispense with the estate of their deceased mother, who for years has shepherded the reputation of their renowned painter-uncle. The family home is itself something of a museum, cluttered with great art (a rare and valuable vase holds some flowers picked from the garden, while a broken Degas plaster is found in a plastic bag at the bottom of a cabinet). While Frederic, the eldest sibling, wants to keep the family home and choice pieces from the art collection, the younger two—both living abroad—prefer to be rid of it all.

Regrets are swallowed, arguments abbreviated. The situation is obviously rife with opportunities for showboating dramatics, but the film prefers quieter moments. There’s no more emblematic question in this film that the tender inquiry, “Are you crying?” Usually, this is asked of someone stewing in his or her own melancholy, staring sadly into space (gazing at some irretrievable vision of a paradise lost to the void of time or something similarly poetic and doomed, I suppose). The answer is typically “No”—the person in question just needs a moment to mull the innumerable sorrows and compromises of life before carrying on dutifully with the business of living.

These are fragile emotions and the film handles them with care, as if they could shatter at any moment. The three siblings' interactions are a believable mixture of tenderness spiked with the occasional irritation. Even a shocking revelation about their mother’s personal life is played in muted tones. The reaction is more one of numbed incomprehension than anger. The moment passes so quietly that only in hindsight do you realize how many other films would have played that scene to the hilt, letting the revelation become the point of the story, rather than tossing it away as an offhanded tangent.

That restraint should not be underestimated. Family dramas too often opt for shouty melodrama not because it adds grit and realism, but instead a kind of morbid escapism. Almost every family I know is built upon the things left unspoken, all those frustrations and private grievances that are never said not just because they could destroy the family, but also because you love these people, as much as they piss you off and even hurt you. There’s a pressure valve of familial rage in almost everyone. Watching a family where the members are able to crank it wide open and let all that emotion gush is immensely cathartic, albeit in the same gratuitous, messy sense that one could say pornography is cathartic.

What is there to this drama then, if not catharsis? How about memory—or more specifically, how it’s created and how it’s nurtured? At the end, the eldest sibling and his wife walk through the Musee d’Orsay, where pieces from his mother’s house now reside. Notably, a desk from her study is prominently displayed in the decorative arts section (that’s the point at the end of the tour where the visitors all roll their eyes at the displays of artful bric-a-brac and wearily inspect the old chairs with feigned interest). It’s discomfiting to consider how the desk once sat in that house, covered in papers and books, a vase filled with fresh flowers on one corner. Once that purpose and meaning has been drained away, only the empty vessel remains—the past so incredibly close, yet now beyond all touch.

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