June 4, 2009

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Summer Hours (NR)
A family deals with the death of its matriarch in Summer Hours, a nicely bittersweet movie about the passing of time.

Hélene (Edith Scob) lives in a gently crumbling estate in the French countryside, surrounded by the museum-quality pieces of furniture and paintings left to the family by a famous artist uncle. As she considers her own death, she has her grown children — Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) — and her sons’ wives and children out for her birthday party and what turns out to be the last meeting of the whole family. She tells her son Frédéric which museums to send what pieces to and to sell the house after she’s gone. He wants to keep “the collection” together and to keep the house in the family. But his brother is moving to Beijing and his sister, who lives in New York City, is about to get married and plans to summer with her husband’s family in Denver.

At issue here is not so much the house or the collection of artwork but the change that happens after a parent dies, specifically after the death of the parent — often the mother — who kept the children, grown and married though they may be, together and acting as their old nuclear family. Jérémie, Frédéric and Adrienne are connected by their mother, by their history growing up at the country house and by the collection of antiques and artwork that represents their family history. When their mother goes, there is a kind of scattering — of the physical things and to some extent of the siblings themselves. It’s a moment of shifting — even for their own children. Frédéric’s own daughter, who is a teenager and about to leave home herself, spends a weekend at the summer house with friends right before it’s sold off. She suddenly grows melancholy about the loss of this place which, is, surprisingly, as deeply a part of her childhood as it is her father’s.

Summer Hours is contemplative — this is neither good nor bad, this changing and loosening of family ties, it simply is. Watching the children adjust makes for a wonderfully nuanced, understated study of family. B

Not rated. Written and directed Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed in limited release and available via the IFC In Theaters option on Comcast On Demand.