In a turn of good fortune, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will screen Olivier Assayas' lovely but poorly distributed 2009 film Summer Hours at 7:30 this Thursday evening. The screening at the Brooks is also deliciously (and possibly deliberately) ironic — for in spite of its solid, low-key ensemble cast, the most affecting stretches of this film concern the fates and futures not of people but of displaced works of art.
Some undisclosed time after a celebratory birthday party at her posh but weather-beaten French country home, lively and elegant matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) dies, leaving her eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) to divide the loot with his two siblings, thorny Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, warmer and more beautiful than ever) and pragmatic Jérémie (a subdued Jérémie Renier).
At first, Frédéric is convinced that everyone else in the family will want to save the house and preserve its many treasures, because Hélène's uncle, who used to own the house, was a famous painter who decked the place with Corot paintings, Odilon Redon panels, Degas plasters, and Art Nouveau cabinets. But it's soon clear that the family members have other plans.
Any American movie that set such narrow parameters would probably try to liven up the proceedings by heaping big oily dollops of sloppy broad comedy or shrill, self-lacerating melodrama onto the audience. Refreshingly, these unobservant, ignorant touch-ups are missing from Summer Hours. After a brief discussion, the family agrees to part with Hélène's possessions — which was what she wanted anyway. Instead of the airing of family grievances and the opening of decades-old psychic wounds, Assayas shows us smaller, more grown-up moments, like internecine chuckles shared at dinner or quiet moments when grief springs on the mourner unaware.
As it turns out, the characters aren't really the focal point of the film anyway. As the process of boxing up, categorizing, and pricing the loot continues, the fates of the characters are casually revealed — Frédéric has a dustup with his daughter over shoplifting, Jérémie goes to China, Adrienne puts some items up for auction at Christie's — without feeling terribly important. Meanwhile, the film spends more and more time meandering around the house via smooth long takes that absorb its sunlit and shadowy spaces, vistas, and memories.
The continuing adventures of all that stuff exert a strong, bittersweet pull; in fact, Summer Hours focuses so much on the objects taken from Hélène's house that it's no exaggeration to say the main characters in the latter portion of the film are pieces of furniture. This means that the film's most mysterious and moving moments are almost unblemished by the presence of flesh and blood beings. One long take cases a writing desk that, in its new home at the Musée d'Orsay, now looks as foreign and lost in time as a dinosaur skeleton. Across from it, a flower vase sits unused and already forgotten behind glass. You almost feel happy for that vase's companion piece, which the housekeeper took because she thought it wasn't anything special.