French Connections: Binoche Is Boss in Assayas Family

c sarrissummerhrs 3h French Connections: Binoche Is Boss in Assayas FamilySummer Hours
Running time 103 minutes
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier

Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’Heure d’Été), from his own screenplay (in French with English subtitles), is curiously described by the 54-year-old writer-director of a dozen or more feature films as his “most Taiwanese film.” Mr. Assayas goes on to elaborate on his admiration for contemporary Chinese filmmakers: “It’s my own personal schizophrenia, but I’ve always felt like a sort of Taiwanese director working in France. When I started making movies, the preoccupations of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang affected me, resonated with my own. Later, I became interested in the work of Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang. … With Summer Hours I return to very local material where there is a relationship to nature, time and modernity, the themes I share with Hou Hsiao-hsien.”

The film begins with the reunion of three far-flung 40-something siblings with their aging mother in her late uncle’s countryside mansion with its valuable 19th-century art collections. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) has become a San Francisco and New York designer; one of her brothers, Frédéric (Charles Berling), has remained in Paris as a published economist and university professor; and the younger brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), has become a successful businessman in China.

Hélène (Edith Scob), their mother, has decided that the time has come to discuss the division of her estate after her death. Hélène hoped against hope that her children would keep her home and its art treasures intact, but with two of her children established in faraway foreign lands, she sees little prospect of this happening. She’s pinned her dwindling prospects on Frédéric, at least to see that Lisa (Dominique Reymond), their longtime cook, maid and retainer, is generously rewarded for her long service to the family.

But Hélène’s death shortly after this first reunion, and a subsequent visit with Adrienne in San Francisco, compels Frédéric to undertake the difficult task of reconciling the wishes of the three children in disposing of their mother’s estate. Adrienne and Jérémie are too committed to their careers abroad even to contemplate returning to Paris except on short visits, and Frédéric has not been successful enough as an author to afford buying out their shares of the inheritance. A further complication arises when Adrienne insists on submitting a precious collection of their famous uncle’s sketches to Christie’s auction house in New York. The curator of the Musée d’Orsay, to which many of the artifacts in the house had been promised, threatens to block an exit permit for the sketches on the grounds that these are national treasures.

Behind all this agitation surrounding the disposition of part of France’s past, Mr. Assayas has acknowledged a metaphorical extension to trends in current economic policies of which he vehemently disapproves. “In Europe,” Mr. Assayas suggests, “there is a lot of abdication among technical sales executives who identify with Anglo-Saxon free-market culture and its values, learned interchangeably in French or American business schools. They scorn their own history, and deep down, their own identity. … I wanted to tell the story of a family that has roots in the past, but with ramifications in the present… Globalization is as much a human as economic phenomenonals.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Assayas has proposed a distinction between Adrienne, an artist whose talents freely cross international borders, and Jérémie, a business executive whose venue is determined by economic forces beyond his control. Frédéric, as the writer-director’s alter ego, does not condemn his two siblings. Yet there is a moment of pathos when Frédéric’s young daughter bursts into tears in her grandmother’s garden when she realizes that she will never be able to repeat to her own grandchildren the same words in the same place where her own grandmother had held her close and told her how precious she was.

At this moment, Mr. Assayas comes close to replicating a similar feeling of helpless nostalgia in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. As it is, the writer-director of some of the most sharp-edged critiques of modern mores in the French cinema has softened his approach, except as regards his dour view of museums as dark places that embalm art objects instead of enhancing them.

asarris@observer.com