There is a moment in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours when a father is showing his teenage son a pair of paintings hanging in his mother's country home. To the father's chagrin, the boy reacts by saying they are from another time. This too can be said of Assayas' new film. It is of another time. Away from the maddening present, Summer Hours is of another age, and it could be argued that the film is also of another director than Assayas. At least of what we know of Assayas.
Starring the intense triumvirate of Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier, Summer Hours is an almost complete departure of sorts for the director. Usually delving deep in the quite claustrophobic industrial urban techno-thriller of the modern Parisian underground, both of its outcasts and of its artists, he hands us instead a beautifully and elegantly shot, lushly panoramic vista of a family, already disheveled by modern society who must witness the disappearance of their childhood memories, and thus, of their childhood.
But what Assayas leaves behind in wanton flush and youthful verve, he gains in a masterly stroke of impressionistic austerity. Not to knock his earlier films - both demonlover and Boarding Gate are intensely erotic films that border on some sort of metaphorical cyberporn wavelength and Irma Vep, the auteur's greatest work, is a luscious ode to cinema in the vein of Truffaut or Rivette - but here Assayas has changed gears from expressionism to impressionism. In this wake he may seem a bit out of place at times, wandering along lazily, without a care in the world, but it works for the most part with a film such as this. His lazy wandering in a film like Boarding Gate for example, ends up much more noticeable and thus much more disastrous. Summer Hours, despite this out of place strangeness, is a gorgeous pictorial on the breakdown of familial connections that borrows heavily from the visual legacy of Monet. In cinematic terms, it is like Rohmer without the burden of a morality lesson.
In another cinematic take, Summer Hours can be seen as an updating of Ozu and his gloriously moribund Tokyo Story. Lyrical yet purposefully claustrophobic in many ways (perhaps Assayas hasn't gone that far astray after all) Summer Hours can work as dual tragedy. Both the tragedy of losing the family matriarch, both mother and grandmother, and the tragedy of not being able, or willing, to deal with said death. Just like Ozu, Assayas uses his idea of modern society to show the devaluation of family ties. A time and place where we have no time to live and deal with life. We are too busy avoiding it altogether. If anything, Assayas has created the very antithesis of the family tale - the breakdown of the family done as elegant tragedy.
Whatever Summer Hours is - loving tribute, complacent homage, auteuristic off-topic treatise, autobiographical sketch, misplaced wandering - one thing is for sure - it is Olivier Assayas at both his most tender and, despite his past sardonic nature, his most subtly biting. Whatever it is, it is worth whatever time you can put into it. [07/22/09]