"Summer Hours" opens, as so many French films do, with a major family reunion at a marvelous old house in the country. But while the setting is familiar, even Chekhovian, what writer-director Olivier Assayas does with it is not.
Assayas, whose credits include "Clean," "Demonlover" and "Irma Vep," is not the type to do things as usual, or even do anything classically French. So it is a pleasant surprise to see him working in a naturalistic form but bringing his own particular sensibility to it.
For "Summer Hours" turns out to be global as well as personal, a family drama with a larger point. While the film is elegiac in the best sense, concerning itself with what the passage of time does to a family, it also takes on broader questions about the disintegration of both a culture and the society that supports it.
None of this is visible when the film starts on a fine summer's day, at a country house to die for, some 50 minutes outside of Paris. Children are playing, dogs are barking, the aging cook is grumbling -- it all feels very much like business as usual for a warm afternoon. Only it isn't.
The three adult children and their own kids gathered for their mother's 75th birthday party not only rarely see one another, they are rarely in the same country. Jeremie (Dardennes brothers regular Jeremie Renier) works for a multinational shoe company in China. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer who's based in New York. It's only Frederic (Charles Berling), an economist and academic, who lives and works in France.
Though her birthday is the nominal cause of the gathering, mother Helene (Edith Scob, whose career dates back to 1960's cult classic "Eyes Without a Face") has her own agenda. She wants to talk to Frederic, the only son in France, about what she wants to be done with the house and its furnishings after she's dead.
For this is not your run-of-the-mill beautiful country house. It belonged to Helene's uncle, Paul Berthier, a well-known painter, and it is filled with the paintings and furnishings he collected over a lifetime of friendship with some of France's great artists.
Despite that, and despite Helene's passion for the house, she insists to Frederic that it and everything in it be disposed of after her death. The children are scattered, they lead lives of their own, and she doesn't want the house to be a burden. Frederic, who is passionate about the house, disagrees, insisting it should be passed down intact to the next generation.
Naturally, the inevitable happens sooner rather than later, and, in a scene that is the heart of the film, the re-gathered siblings engage in spirited discussion as, balancing reasons of practicality with those of emotion, they wrestle with the question of what should be done with the house. What they decide and how that plays out in practical terms take up the bulk of the film.
Adding even more drama to the discussion is the realization that "Summer Hours" is talking not just about the potential end of this house but the possible disintegration of a society and a culture as well. What does it mean when money determines the value of everything? Is society diminished or improved when things of worth exist only in museums?
Despite the importance of these questions, "Summer Hours" also finds time to explore the personal, to examine the warm but wary way these siblings interact with each other. And the emotions surrounding Helene's death are always close at hand, as is the realization of how continually disturbing death is to the living.
What is most unusual about "Summer Hours" is that it is concerned about what will be left of French culture if the country's best and brightest move offshore. French films traditionally take France and its eternal appeal for granted. "Summer Hours" is the rare film that worries about that, worries about the future, and that proves to be invaluable.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters