Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours begins in the country home of the Berthier family’s elegant matriarch, Hélène (Edith Scob). Her three children and many grandchildren have come to celebrate her 75th birthday and the publication of a book about her renowned artist uncle and possible one-time lover, Paul Berthier. Serving as a monument to Paul’s work and vast collection of objets d’art, as well as the only real gathering place for Hélène’s far-flung family, the house is filled with beautiful, well worn things that are cherished upon reflection yet taken for granted on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in the garden and looking through the book, the family members see a photograph of an older generation of Berthiers sitting exactly as they are now, reminding everyone how much this place links them to their past.
The familial eventualities Assayas highlights throughout Summer Hours are intrinsic to the collective human social experience—watching parents age and children grow up, relatives navigating the generation gap, siblings trying to get along. That the Berthiers deal with these common issues while never devolving into mere archetypes for the audience to project onto only makes their quiet dramas more deeply felt. Yet the film’s real greatness stems not merely from its exploration of family, but its depiction of a distinctly 21st-century family in particular. In the microcosm of the Berthiers’ story, Assayas finds globalization, commerce, the history and the arbitrary value of objects, and the question of what defines art and what makes art meaningful, themes as grand as anything he explores in his more overtly global pieces like demonlover, Clean, or Boarding Gate, despite the fact that the film takes place entirely in France and features an unmistakably French sensibility. Somehow encompassing the major preoccupations of the decade through the lens of one family, Summer Hours is at once heartbreaking and sweet, nostalgic yet modern, universal yet incredibly personal. Read Farihah Zaman on Summer Hours..