It is a simple story. At a family gathering at grandma Helene’s (Edith Scob) charming country house outside of Paris, her three adult children and their spouses banter while her grandchildren play games. She is an animus and demanding woman. “These reunions exhaust me,” she complains. Frederic (Charles Berling), the oldest, is an economist and lives in Paris with his family. Helene depends on him more. “You’re never around,” she croaks. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is an art designer, single and lives in New York. She harbors bumptious disregards for her mother when they clash, especially over arts. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), an executive, is most distant from the matriarch. He and his family live in China and look to move there permanently.
The aging Helene is in decline. Aside with Frederic, she bemoans what will become of her extensive art collection after she is gone. The house is a shrine for her modestly distinguished artist-uncle. It is an elegant clutter of designer furniture, paintings and sculptures (many on loan from Musee d’Orsay for the movie). She calls them her “residue of life.” With measured agitation, she longs that the house and art collection stay with the family, so that future generations can gather to collect family memories. After their mother’s funeral, the siblings sit to contend with Helene’s dying wishes. Adrienne and Jeremie confess that the house means little to them. They rather sell it, auction the art pieces and share the proceeds. “I need the money, don’t be angry,” admits Jeremie. Grudgingly Frederic concedes. In time, appraisers and art dealers converge on the house and its art works find their places in museums and private collections.
“Summer Hours,” written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is an elegy of post modernity’s realities on a middle-class family, and a meditation on the aesthetic and monetary values of art in that post-modern family. The movie is a sad chant of an alchemy that transforms the family into fragmented individuals. The once stability and continuity of being family is revised into the individuals’ transient and disconnected future. This movie has many laments of that lost. After her family leaves, Helene sits alone in the dark, sad and longs to share her family memories and secrets but resigns no one really cares. At the funeral, the siblings sit to share for comfort, but like lonely orphans, they are distant in quietude. After the decision to sell the house, Frederic sits in the dark, sad with regrets. Eloise, the family’s lifelong housekeeper, strolls outside the empty house, peeking through windows, staring into darkness, sad with unspoken longings. At the end, Helene’s granddaughter with friends barge in the vacant house to party, for the last time. Then she walks away into the woods, lonely, whimpering that she misses grandma. Post-modern living is defined by familial impermanence, fragmented relationships and existential loneliness.
“Summer Hours” is also a meditation on the aesthetic beauty and monetary value of art in a post-modern world. Helene and Adrienne argue the nuanced inherent value of art. All the while, discarded in a closet are the broken pieces of a Degas sculpture in a plastic bag. In the woods behind the house, Frederic and his wife gather wild flowers to decorate their rooms. They have little market value but are as subjectively aesthetic as the Corot paintings. Two Bracquemond glass vases – one is in a secured display case in a museum and the other is holding cut flowers in Eloise’s small kitchen. Several art pieces, once personal, sentimental and priceless have become an impersonal and prized museum collection. Frederic and his wife repine, “It’s nicely displayed,” as oblivious patrons pass by his mother’s treasured furniture in a gallery. Looking at the bottom line, their estate lawyer advises that a few art pieces be donated for taxes purpose. In post-modern reality, the intrinsic and aesthetic value of art is disparaged by its monetary value. Besides, what is the actual difference between an art work displayed at home and in a museum?