Will American art-house moviegoers finally catch up to Chekhov? They didn't turn out in huge numbers even for Louis Malle's glorious Vanya on 42nd Street. Let's hope they show up in force for the Chekhovian comedy-drama Summer Hours.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas' buoyant film about a French family in flux is based on an original script that's a cousin to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. It may play better now than when it hit the festival circuit a year ago. Since we've gone from a period of rage and euphoria to one of wait and see, audiences may feel closer to the people in this film. These intelligent men and women are steeped in unresolved emotions about the past, conflicts about the present and befuddlement about the future. Such characters have rarely been presented with more casual grace or a defter mingling of humor and tragedy.
Summer Hours is a movie about domestic life and authentic art as unpredictable creations. The family members offer a cross-section of contemporary haute-bourgeois society: not a butcher, a baker or a candlestick-maker, but a designer ( Juliette Binoche), an academic economist (Charles Berling) and a production executive for a giant international athletic-shoe company (Jeremie Renier).
In a long, seductive introduction, they meet at the country home of their mother for her 70th birthday. She has devoted her life to preserving and publicizing her uncle's sketchbooks and art collection. She guesses that after she's gone, her children will sell the family home - the designer lives in New York, the businessman in China. But she's determined to keep the art together. It might have to be in a museum.
Through the dramatization of her hopes and fears, Assayas expresses the rock and roll of history.
Thanks to an inspired collaboration with the actors and with the cinematographer, Eric Gautier, he also conjures a lyric vision of homecoming. This film is both beautiful and trenchant about renewed connections and wary sizing-up among grown siblings. Scenes such as the presentation of the mother's birthday gifts elevate everyday occurrences into subtle theatrical poetry.
Images of grandchildren gamboling up and down green hills refresh our sense of the familiar. Vignettes like a married couple finding a trail where the husband can voice dissatisfaction set off unexpected reverberations; they continue to ripple through the action after the mother dies. The economist holds the keenest ancestral feelings, as well as the most contrarian modern ideas. He sees the melancholy surrounding the excitement of globalization in the dispersion of his family.
The whole movie unfolds like a realistic dream. We view the behavior of the siblings with clarity, in a unique, languorous swirl of gesture, movement and color. The movie proves sublimely generous with its affections. Assayas respects each of his characters. You understand the businessman's urgency when he moves quickly to sell the house. (He, unlike the others, really needs the money.) You catch the profundity in the designer's feeling that her great-uncle's legacy both ennobled and imprisoned her mother.
Because the ensemble acting is seamless, you never stop seeing this family as a bonded unit. Concern, affection and curiosity unite its members whether they're at peace or at loggerheads. (Was the matriarch romantically involved with her own uncle? They, and we, want to know.) Berling is nonpareil at expressing intensity and confusion beneath a mulish, donnish surface. Binoche is brilliant as an up-to-date woman who shakes off tradition and follows her own sensibility. She captures the substance behind her character's constant movement and conveys loss and sudden isolation with heart-stopping immediacy.
The triumph of the movie is that it restores soulfulness to real-life architecture and objets d'art - because Assayas, an artist to his bones, insists on recognizing their human roots. When the family heirlooms become a public display, they suddenly give off a different feeling than they did in the mother's organically ordered (and disordered) rooms. They lose their vitality and magic.
The opposite happens when the economist's teenage daughter invites her friends to the country house before the new owners take possession of it. They toss a free-form party. The group's dancing and irreverence, even more than the girl's burst of nostalgia, make the lush grounds and empty rooms come alive with the recklessness and ardor of a rising generation.
Pastoral renewal - that's what Summer Hours is all about. This is the art house equivalent of a perfect summer movie.
Summer Hours (IFC Films) Starring Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier and Juliette Binoche. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Unrated. Time: 102 minutes. In French with English subtitles.