Blu-ray Review: Summer Hours (Criterion Collection)

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Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours received several kudos throughout 2009, primarily from critical groups including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, both of which named it the best Foreign Language Film of 2009. While it didn’t go on to earn an Oscar nomination, I can now see why so many enjoy it as I missed it when it was in theaters last year.

Helene (Edith Scob), mother to Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), has called her family to their childhood home in France to celebrate her birthday as well as discuss her will. Determined to make sure her affairs are in order when she passes away, Helene discusses her thoughts with Frederic, the most sentimental of the three, a sentimentality that will be challenged throughout the rest of the picture as Helene’s passing causes those she leaves behind to consider what they will make of their childhood home and the valuable pieces of art it contains. Many of which from their uncle, a famed impressionist painter named Paul Berthier. Make no mistake, though, this isn’t a bickering family melodrama. It’s a well thought out personal drama focused on the implications of how we choose to remember and maintain the relationships we have with our family, even after they have passed away.

The story itself is something anyone could come up with, and it’s worth depends solely on the talent of Assayas as writer and director. He has put together a passionate and emotional piece of storytelling that had me sold the moment Helene waves goodbye to her children for the last time. We don’t know it will be the last time, but as she turns and slowly heads up those stone steps, canvassed in a foliage archway, the film gracefully moves into its second act. It’s the best moment in the film and it locks you in for the rest of the feature.

Performances from Binoche, Berling and Renier are stellar and what little screen time Scob gets, she manages perfectly as the emotional arc of the film just wouldn’t be as powerful had the loving reality of her family not been conveyed in that opening act.

In terms of Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation, it’s as pristine as you would imagine for a film that’s only two years old. The camera work is beautiful and the audio has no noticeable distractions.

The supplementary material is limited, but has all that is really necessary. First is a new video interview with Assayas conducted in January 2010 specially for this Criterion edition. It basically serves as a 45-minute audio commentary, telling you the important bits without the filler. Scenes from the film accompany the conversation when needed and seeing how this was the first film of his I had seen I am now interested in watching Late August, Early September and Destinees Sentimentales, which he refers to as the other two films in his “global trilogy.”

There is also a 26-minute making of documentary that’s rather routine and a 50-minute documentary titled “Inventory” that takes a closer look at the artwork I mentioned earlier, because while Summer Hours is a familial drama it’s also a commentary on art and family heirlooms and the role they play in our lives. The importance of pieces of art and the differing value and meaning each piece has depending on our connection to it.

Helene’s house, the art and the furniture inside of it all represent more than just physical items. These items serve as memories of the person that created them, valued them, used and owned them. In this way I think Summer Hours finds an odd connection to the theme of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, which is to say that when we die our body goes away, but we will always live on in the memories of others. In this example the art serves as a memory of not only Helene the collector, but of the artist Paul Berthier. Seeing these objects can remind us of those that owned and created them, keeping their memory alive. This isn’t a new idea, but when discussed it opens a fascinating doorway to deeper understanding of why we do the things we do, and the role regret plays when we don’t.

A 26-page illustrated booklet completes the package with an essay titled “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” by Kent Jones.

As pretty as Summer Hours is to look at, it’s a rather sad and introspective feature that was very personal to Assayas as his mother passed away in 2007 and he admits the film sort of had a life of its own and was coming together more and more every day. This is evident throughout and with a powerful ending that I can’t say I necessarily saw coming. Whether or not this is a worthy purchase is a tough call. It’s a great film and I can see fans returning to it again and again, but more casual viewers may see it as a one and done. A rental may be in order here, but I also say that not having seen the three films Assayas mentions in connection with the film, perhaps as a package these three offer even more… I’m determined to find out.

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