“Summer Hours”

28 March 2010

The most precise thing I can say about this evocative film is that it filled my dreams after watching it.  How much do I love French films, which seem to aimlessly touch on nerves, get lost in dead-end streets, curve around again, draw out tears?

This isn’t the kind of film you can easily summarize, because it’s about all the complex unsaid emotions that inhabit real life.  There’s no protagonist, really.  It made my partner and I argue about its meaning afterward in that tedious way (“it’s about nostalgia!” “no, it’s about how we value things!”).  It revolves around three grown siblings who must determine what to do with their mother’s house and belongings when she dies — a house that, weirdly, somehow isn’t really hers, for she has long been the self-appointed guardian of this magical country home full of the art and collections of her uncle, an artist who had a remarkable eye for buying extraordinary pieces that the family proceeds to live with, use for meals, bump into, break or lose, and treat as everyday household objects.

The house itself seems so significant to me.  The film begins and ends with shots of children and teenagers romping down the sloping hills, dancing, having treasure hunts, racing through its lovely rooms.  The shots of the interior of the house seem full of possibility, even when they’re stripped of the museum-quality objets that constitute the family’s inheritance.  Yet the house is also almost too weighty for its characters, too, with its things and its upkeep and its memories — that’s why some of the siblings are willing to give it up.  The way the film keeps coming back to issues of ownership and loss, the meaning of things, petty family battles, memory and considerations about the future … all I can say is it has haunted my dreams.  I’m not sure I remember a film that did so much with so much modesty.  Those scenes of utter childhood joy, contrasted with the image of the semi-tragic Edith Scob as the mother, walking bleakly back up to her empty house after the family leaves and sitting in the dark in that austere chair….