'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Film Notes: Summer Hours 

When my wife and son are away, I get to indulge myself in one of my favorite pastimes, watching movies. First, there was The Girlfriend Experience last Sunday, then Summer Hours while biking around San Francisco on Wednesday.

Summer Hours is a French family story centered around the decisions that the siblings must make in relation to the estate left by their deceased mother, a warm, beautiful country home filled with the artwork, sculptures and furnishings acquired during the her life through her association with her uncle, a respected, if now largely forgotten, artist. The French, it seems, are no longer special, and even the French have reconciled themselves to it.

Assayas, the writer and director, tells the story through a conventional narrative in his typically naturalistic style of subdued light and color. His emphasis is upon our integrated experiences of work, family and culture as it has evolved over time. Early on, we discover that France is no longer a large enough canvas to contain the ambitions of its middle class. Helene, the matriarch, is celebrating her 75th birthday with her three children and their grandchildren. One of her sons, Jeremie, is a business executive in China, while her daughter, Adrienne, is a designer living in New York. Only Frederic, her other son, remains in France as a professor of economics in Paris.

Over the course of the film, we discover that Jeremie left to work in China because of the lack of similar opportunities in the European Union, and a promotion to Beijing means that it is unlikely that he will ever return to France. Similarly, Adrienne has become so acclimatized to life in the US, with an impending second marriage, that her time in France will be even more limited. Only Frederic has followed path that has allowed him to preserve his French cultural identity. Adrienne and Jeremie have been scattered by the winds of globalization, a wind that has also worn away the prestige formerly accorded academics like Frederic.

The family estate is an allegorical repository of the French cultural heritage. Full of paintings, sculptures, panels, furniture and vases, they are subjected to the process of classification and categorization that Edward Said identified as central to the French imperial enterprise in Egypt. A country that once imposed its cultural standards upon others finds itself experiencing the same processes of subordination. The family is caught between the contradictory hopes of keeping this rich collection within France or maximizing potential profit from the sale of it.

Assayas returns to an old theme, the means by which the intellectualization and monetization of art go hand in hand. At one point, Frederic permits Helene's servant to take any vase that she wants. She selects one that she often used to display flowers, without knowing that it was crafted by a well known 19th Century modernist. As she walks home with it, she talks to herself about how she selected something ordinary, because, after all, what would do with something that carries the burden of artistic achievement. The scene recalls one from an earlier Assayas flim, Late August, Early September, a scene where the teen aged lover of a deceased novelist of the May '68 generation receives a Keith Haring print from him through his will. She keeps the print under her bed, connected to it because of its emotional content as opposed to its desirability if offered at an art auction. Similarly, Helene's servant is drawn to the vase as a memorialization of their relationship.

Assayas counterposes an alternative appreciation of art as an expression of our experiences and relationships as a substitution for the abstractions of intellectual content and financial value. Other Assayas preoccupations also emerge. For example, his interest in the shadow that May '68 casts over its progeny and those that follow manifests itself when a police officer informs Frederic that his daughter, Sylvie, has been arrested for shoplifting. The officer also tells Frederic that he discovered a useable amount of a controlled substance in her purse. Frederic can't say much, as he uses marijuana himself, but involuntarily starts making parental demands about the boyfriend that he believes must invariably be involved, understanding all along that he is acting precisely like his parents did, and the parents of the May '68 generation did. For Assayas, renewal lies along a path of youthful transgression, a path that he personally traveled and addressed fictionally in his 1994 film, Cold Water.

Hence, Assayas suggests that another world is possible when Sylvie and her friends have a party at the estate at the conclusion of the film. They immediately proceed to plug in stereo equipment and computers and blast out music throughout the house. They respect the house, and yet this respect does not prevent them from putting it to their own uses, to incorporate their own social identity into it. Sylvie leaves the house and takes her boyfriend to a place where she and Helene watched the harvesting of fruit when she was a little girl. Despite the rational calculations of responsible adults, the young and the old will inevitably preserve and renew France as a lived experience as opposed to the warehousing of artifacts.

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