Criterion Commentaries: “Summer Hours”
A wealthy matriarch dies. Three middle-aged siblings discover there may not be room in their present or future for their past. What now?
We’ve seen countless films over the years about the grieving process, so writer/director Olivier Assayas wisely gives us a film about inheritance in L’heure d’été (Summer Hours). In fact, we see mere glimmers of the three adult siblings reacting to the death of their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob). Nearly every scene in the film, from start to finish, speaks specifically to the thesis that inheritance can be as much a link to our past to be treasured as it can be a burden. Elder son Frédéric (Charles Berling) romanticizes the family estate and envisions handing it down to future generations to share. Younger son Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), however, has taken a high-paying position with an international corporation in China; he is not likely to return home to France and he needs the money. Sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is likewise putting together a life in New York.
The conflict is obvious: the sentimental versus the practical. For Frédéric, emotional associations imbue artifacts with a personal connection. They are the ties that bind, and that binding holds meaning. Conversely, “they’re just things” is the prevailing argument against sentimentality. That view, espoused by Jérémie and Adrienne, reduces an inheritance to little more than a burden. They are the things left behind that we do not, ourselves, value. People often have passionate, divisive feelings on the matter. Assayas posits a correlation between physical and emotional distances; it is the sibling still living near the family homestead who longs to preserve it while those whose pursuit of life has taken them across the globe have little regard for the heirlooms.
Frédéric is, of course, outnumbered by his siblings and the estate is eventually sold. There will be no more family gatherings at the old home. A museum will display the desk where their mother sat. Their great-uncle’s sketches will go to auction. Olivier Assayas’s taut screenplay tethers every scene to this narrative, but it is Charles Berling’s seething performance that anchors the film. (Of course we’re meant to empathize with him; he is the character motivated by emotion.) Assayas never allows the film to devolve into melodrama; yet, even on so short a leash, Berling radiates frustration and anguish. He doesn’t need a grandstanding soliloquy to tell us his siblings have dashed every hope he has for his family. Not only will future generations not vacation together at the family home; he is unlikely to even reunite with his brother or sister. They will still be alive, but they will be as lost to him as his mother.
Summer Hours may be unconventional in its approach to exploring the aftermath of death, but it is unique and emotionally honest. First time viewers may be jarred by the seemingly cold nature of Summer Hours. We’re conditioned to expect scenes of demonstrative pain and anger, yielding to heartwarming closure. You’ll find none of that here. Few among us will ever inherit an estate quite like the one depicted here, but it does not matter. The nature of inheritance—being left with the belongings of someone else—is universal.