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Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

Summer Hours (2008)

Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films

“Summer Hours” – which stands diametrically opposed to the globe-trotting B-movie tributes that have recently preoccupied writer-director Olivier Assayas – only serves to reaffirm his filmmaking range. It’s an intimate motion picture steeped in nostalgia, one that explores the ways our memories strangely bestow inanimate objects with great personal significance. With its idyllic views of the French countryside, piercing study of sibling relationships and ethereal renderings of the detritus of modern aristocratic life, the film looks and feels like something Eric Rohmer might have made.

It follows three siblings as they struggle to come to terms with the death of their mother and the question of what to do with her country estate and its rare, artistically valuable fittings. Of the three, only Frédéric (Charles Berling) still lives in Paris. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) returns from New York, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) from China. As they bury their mother, they also lay to rest the last remnants of their childhoods and – in the debate over the proper course of action regarding the house – risk being permanently ensconced from their shared past.

The project began as a commissioned short from the Musée d'Orsay in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Although funding for it in that form fell through, one can clearly see the reasons for Mr. Assayas’s fascination with a story about the museum. His screenplay confronts nothing less than the meaning and purpose of an art museum and the ways those change when objects meant to serve an everyday purpose – for example, a desk or a lamp – are removed from their natural habitats and placed on display. “Summer Hours” does so not in an archaic, overly formal way, but by introducing everyday characters, presenting them with a set of everyday concerns and lending the decisions they make a gravitas that even they don’t quite understand. It’s compelling real-world stuff with profound implications.


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