Summer Hours

Posted by schnolis on June 1st, 2009 filed in Reviews

SUMMER HOURSMost movies, for better or for worse, feel like movies. The characters can be more beautiful or intelligent than anyone you’ve met. When unexpectedly unfortunate events happen, you reflexively begin anticipating how they’re going to overcome a particular obstacle. But sometimes, no matter how interesting the story or adorable the characters, you cannot forget that it’s just a film. Each scene is artificially composed, rehearsed, shot and then edited, and sometimes more than once. In my head I sometimes think to myself, “how strange it must have been to film that while looking right into a camera.” None of these comments are complaints; it’s just too hard sometimes to detach the conscious mind from reality and suspend doubt to engage a movie.

But, every once in a while, there is a movie like Summer Hours. A couple of hours passed by, and at the end I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, that I didn’t just witness a family losing their mother. I reminded myself that it was just actors, playing roles, and that the assorted emotions I was experiencing were just a reaction to a well-crafted piece of art. I re-adjusted back to reality and calmly waited for the credits to finish, ready to rejoin the world.

The matriarch in the film is Helene, the aged and dying mother of three children who gather at her pastoral home for a weekend in the summer. She implores her eldest son Frédéric to consider how to settle the estate once she’s gone. He doesn’t believe it’s coming so soon, so he ignores her. Only too quickly, though, it comes to pass, and the family gathers from the corners of the world to grieve. Their mother has been the caretaker of many priceless paintings, furniture, sketches and other pieces of art, all of which are in full display around the drafty old summer house. Frédéric assumes everyone will want to keep her possessions intact there, but Jérémie, the youngest son, has moved his family to Japan, and doesn’t have any interest in keeping an old house he’ll never use. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), the only daughter, lives in the USA and doesn’t see herself returning now that their mother has died. So Frédéric begins the process of selling her belongings, dealing with the mundane tasks of taxes and dispersements, and moves the family on to their next stage.

The story is so simple, and anyone who has endured the loss of the last member of an older generation will find it eerily familiar. The beauty, even magic, of this story is entirely in the details. It is found in the casual conversations during lunch, or sifting through old objects and remembering some fond story. You learn things about the person who died you never knew, comprehend things about yourself you never otherwise got. It’s these moments in life, whether in deaths, births or weddings, when we gather with family and engage the immediate event, that allow us to examine our choices and focus our resolve. This family did very normal and courageous things, and it was beautiful being a part of it.

What I liked: The realism. The gentle pacing and letting the story unfold easily and naturally. The discussion and understanding of things, of objects, and their values to us. This picture spoke to the quality of art, and how utterly subjective and personal that value tends to be. The balance of the story was awesome. I enjoyed how the mother of the three children dominated the first portion, and the daughter of the oldest son led the final portion, an appropriate example of how families move forward, how life moves on for us all.

What I disliked: Sometimes I felt like the movie tried to do a little too much, especially with the daughter. At the beginning she was playing nicely with all the younger children, and by the end, only a few months later in time, she was getting busted by the police and having raucous parties. Not anything terrible, though. Juliette Binoche was underused.

Rating: 8 of 10

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