Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours offers an intimate, achingly beautiful meditation on family, inheritance (fiscal and spiritual), and generational change. Wildly different in scope and tone from the French director's recent trilogy of internationally flavored genre pics (Demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate), his Summer Hours is a mature and ultimately moving look at a family coming to terms with the looming death of its septuagenarian matriarch (an elegant Edith Scob).
Three siblings - a designer played by Juliette Binoche, an economist played by Charles Berling, and a globe-trotting businessman, Jérémie Renier - have gathered in the family's beautiful country house outside Paris. Surrounded by paintings, antiques, and museum-quality furniture (the legacy of their late uncle, a well-known artist), the three share memories of childhood in this idyllic spot. And they share their grief and regrets, their accomplishments and increasingly different world views as an unexpected conflict develops over what to do with the property.
Quietly and keenly observed, Summer Hours nods to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (a country estate, a family reunion, an impending sale). Assayas displays a lucid sense of how personal history and family identity are inextricably linked to a physical place - here, to a house that is still busy accumulating its memories.
That the director ends Summer Hours with a troop of kids - teenagers, the family offspring, and a gaggle of friends and party crashers - trashing the house to a soundtrack of thumping hip-hop, buoyant French rock, and a cover of an old Incredible String Band hippie-ditty - well, it's not where you expect the film to go.
But it goes there, and makes perfect, poignant sense.