“Summer Hours” begins promisingly. Three adult children, cast to different points of the globe, return to their mother’s serene country estate outside of Paris to celebrate her 75th birthday. Grandchildren flit about the lush grounds as the trio lounge, wine glasses fixed to their hands, and chitchat with genial tweaking banter. Their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), with undertones of cynicism, begrudgingly accepts presents.
Hélène is not obsessed with her own mortality but the fate of her home and, just as importantly to her, the artistic possessions within. She takes aside her eldest son, Frederic (Charles Berling), an economist who lives in Paris with his wife and two kids, and lists an inventory of the home’s most valuable (in both senses) belongings; it’s a bevy of prestigious paintings, including those by her artist uncle with whom she shared the home for many years, and museum-coveted furniture and bric-a-brac. Frederic is unsettled by his mother’s straightforward approach and reacts understandably — he knows it’s necessary but there’s never a good time for this sort of discussion.
Just a few months later, when Hélène returns from San Francisco after hosting a retrospective of her uncle’s work which was attended by the whole family, she passes away suddenly. (The San Francisco sojourn, her death and the funeral service are all unfilmed events.) After the unseen funeral service, the three children sit and drink and begin to recollect. They are each aghast at the anecdotes Hélène shared with the exhibition’s audience, stories hinting at a more intimate life with her uncle. She “never spoke so freely in front of us,” one posits.
And here “Summer Hours” seems on the verge of an intriguing examination of the mourning process. It’s a film which seems to be bracing for an exploration into a multitude of questions: how well do we really know someone, even our immediate family? How do we react and deal with the strain on family bonds when brothers and sisters form new families with distinct responsibilities? What can a will bequeath that memory hasn’t already left? What is the worth of an antique painting compared to the recollection of how your mother’s skin feels against your cheek? Essentially, what is the value of a person? Deflatingly, though, “Summer Hours” shirks any desire to truly delve.
The middle child, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a high-end flatware designer, lives in New York and is engaged to an American. The States, she admits, will become her permanent residence. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the younger brother, an executive for a sneaker company, already resides in Asia with his wife and three kids. A forthcoming promotion will extend his stay for years. The country home is of no benefit to either; the property and the considerable collection is a useful and timely inheritance to cash in. Frederic, who would like to retain the home, is outvoted. The decision is pragmatic and logical yet detached. They don’t talk about their mother as a person but more as a curator; she’s not the object of affection or even derision but more akin to an objet d’art. And after the decision to sell is made, the movie becomes too interested in estate issues, and how to reduce tax penalties, and the machinations of massaging the sale of the heirlooms to the Musée d’Orsay.
Frederick, a good hearted man, is still an undeveloped presence, even though the last third of the film is spent exclusively following his story, because too much time is spent on these business affairs. (The other two have returned to their foreign locales and are, at best, peripheral characters.) Even when a reflective moment is introduced, such as when Frederic and his wife go the museum to view their family’s assembled works on display, it’s undercut by a lack of urgency; the scene ends with a strange fit of laughter in the museum’s coffee shop.
The most poignant moments in the film are derived from two scenes focusing on the secondary character of Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), their mother’s long-serving housekeeper. In the first, she arrives at the home while appraisers are busy boarding up the catalogued artwork and, as she roams the house, her face is a genuine expression of subtle melancholy. Then, in an even tenderer scene, she returns when the house is locked up for sale, and she can only slowly walk the perimeter, peering through the windows into the empty rooms.
But when the story comes back to Frederic, “Summer Hours” incorporates an unnecessary tangential plot of his teenaged daughter snared in a minor entanglement with the police. (Snagged for shoplifting and possessing a trace of weed, she’s let off with a warning.) But the film hasn’t nurtured the relationship between father and daughter so it feels clichéd. (Strangely, very quickly afterwards she is allowed to host, unsupervised, a massive party at the home with a few dozen of her friends.)
The inner lives haven’t been properly examined. And this is true of the adult children as well. There’s very little interest in grief or loss. Earlier this year, the evocative “Cherry Blossoms” addressed these issues with more authenticity and clarity than director and writer Olivier Assayas seems inclined to invest in “Summer Hours.” As the siblings open an umpteenth bottle of wine one wonders if what they’re really thinking is how much the corkscrew can fetch at auction.