When you walk through a museum and see an ornate piece of furniture on display, you read the caption and walk past, forgetting about it as soon as it leaves your sight.
But consider that this desk, vase or armoire used to sit in someone’s home. It used to hold treasured belongings and tie up the room. It used to mean something to someone.
“Summer Hours” finds meaning in our possessions. It’s a film about a family attempting to split up their mother’s belongings after her passing, and it gets at the subtle nostalgia, plans, bonds and emotions that exist in every family.
This particular French family has gathered for their mother Helene’s (Edith Scob) 75th birthday. They talk quaintly and the children play, but Helene needs to talk business. She pulls aside her son Frederic (Charles Berling) to discuss what to do with her belongings after she dies. This is never an easy conversation topic.
The big problem is that Helene is a wealthy art collector living in a massive French villa. She had a deep friendship with a famous French artist long ago and acquired many of his paintings and valuables. Frederic is the only one still living in France and the only one equipped to truly maintain the house after she’s gone.
But how do you get someone to care about an older person’s relics? Frederic has enough problems with his own kids, and now he has to look over the estate of a French artist he hardly knew. Despite her massive collection, the saddest truth is that Helene can’t give away everything. “There are a lot of things that will leave with me,” she says. “There are stories no one is interested in and things no one wants.”
Shortly after, Helene dies, and the family gathers again to manage her estate. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) is starting a new job in China and is short for cash, and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is getting married to her American boyfriend and living abroad. Neither has the time or money to keep the house or many of the treasured belongings, and Frederic can’t buy them out. Most of it must be sold or donated to museums that are interested.
It’s a fight between nostalgia and necessity, between past and present desires. Everyone has their own plans, and in such closely knit families, it can be difficult and awkward when they don’t meet.
Director and writer Olivier Assayas finds that awkward tension in everything that is not said. In one pivotal scene, Adrienne admits she’s getting married, but the news lands like a dull thud because it casts the deciding vote in selling the house. We can sense so easily that Frederic is biting his tongue out of respect, but at the same time he has to show his enthusiastic, happy support.
“Summer Hours” has an elegant, episodic quality to it that encourages these actors and stifles any melodrama. It finds authenticity and meaning in even the most simple of moments.