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By Jay Kuehner
”A bunch of rich people trying to unload their antique shit.” Thus cracked a colleague, after seeing Olivier Assayas’ L’heure d’été, wherein the treasured estate of a spry, discerning widow is bequeathed to her well-heeled progeny. Certainly, the film’s bourgeois milieu lends itself unfavourably to even the most flippant of Marxist critiques, but its execution manifests a universal sense of transience, the ways in which matter and memory, pace Henri Bergson, are conjoined. Even the most gilded heirloom is not without thorns, and it is in the fray of exchange—material, familial, and generational—that Assayas locates a sense of vitality.
Where typically Assayas has mined this fray for its intrinsic, jagged contradictions, in L’heure d’été the temperament is wistful, resigned. Consider, for example, the way that legacies take on unanticipated destinies in Fin août, début septembre (1998): a writer’s sudden death fails to lend him any posthumous grace; a prized Joseph Beuys piece finds a most unsuspecting heir. Perhaps it is a sign of maturity in the face of life’s unceasing trials, whether on the part of his characters or the director himself, but the tension that arises from the possibility of certain fates left unrealized—those of objects and the people attending them—is left more slack in L’heure d’été’s venerable disposition.
L’heure d’été opens none too symbolically on kids cavorting in the lush greenery just beyond the house in question, with Eric Gautier’s fluid camera pulling up just shy of the adult world that will occupy most of the film’s attention. The verdant setting signifies the primacy of nature, even if the country house enveloped by robust foliage isn’t too far from Paris, and the fractured tableau of a family gathering sur l’herbe is dominated by cosmopolitan chatter. The Malry family has convened to honour the 75th birthday of grandmother Hélène (Edith Scob), while the spectre of the home’s former owner, the late painter Paul Berthier, uncle (and possible lover) of Hélène, looms large. A newly published monograph of floods her memories while also providing a telling schematic frame, presenting the purview from which he painted as the stage upon which this family presently frets. Inferred is the notion that familial ties may be more enduring than we care to concede, and that we are perpetually enclosed, for better and worse, by our uses of the past.
In lieu of a structured narrative, the film proceeds by vignette to eddy around the basic premise of what to do with the family legacy—the Art Nouveau armoires, the sets of delicate china, even the house itself—once Hélène is gone. The question is first posed as a plausible anxiety for Hélène, whose sass nevertheless belies her age (”Mohair blanket, perfect gift for old people!” she derides). Then an elegaic mood prevails, as Assayas wrinkles time and (mercifully) elides Hélène’s passing, the burden of history shifting now to the conflicting children, their lives caught up in rather stereotypically globalised concerns. Designer Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) will take her Chuck Taylors over brother Jérémie’s (Jérémie Renier) product line made in China, while Frédéric (Charles Berling) ponders the economic relativity of it all in a new book that gets panned on talk radio. The implication is that of imperiled continuity of the French family, cleaved apart by postmodern living (Assayas leaves more pressing factors like unemployment, class, and miscegenation conspicuously aside, subjects all too readily scooped up by his colleagues Abdel Kechiche and Laurent Cantet). If the film appears intent on recovering the timeless value of art against the exigencies of the present, whatever the socio-economic milieu, then it is at its most convincing when that art returns to its source as effectual human labour, renewed through utility.
In spite of protestations from Frédéric to preserve the family estate—as if he were somehow preserving the family itself—it seems a foregone conclusion that the Hoffman cabinets and Odilon Redon panels will make their way to the Musee d’Orsay (who originally commissioned the film as a short) where, tastefully displayed, they offer a hollow homage to its former owner while inducing yawns from student tour groups. Can art be appreciated devoid of its human context? Assayas’ rejoinder is strikingly modern considering the precious patina of the fading world under consideration: L’heure d’été undoubtedly harbours a nostalgia for the past, for tactile craft, while curiously embracing the virtues of appropriation as a means of emotional survival. The vase offered to a now unemployed housekeeper Eloise as a souvenir is, unbeknown to her, a rare collectible; that she ambles away with it modestly (”I couldn’t take advantage. I took something ordinary.” she confides) is perhaps the film’s most cherishable irony. Of what worth is a vase without flowers? And flowers without someone to remember? Likewise a silver tray designed by Christopher Dresser, impressed with the veins of actual leaves, is transformed from merely appreciable to rather charged by Adrienne’s personal, dreaming connection to it.
Inheritance becomes the official notion by which Assayas speaks of unofficial influence, that eternally impressionable state that, in the end, can’t be imposed. A slight but key scene stages the distinction nicely: Frédéric subjects his teenage son and daughter to the pair of Corot paintings hanging in the country home in hopes of provoking some kind of response. ”One day they’ll be yours” he assures, ”Do you like them?” That they rate ”just okay” and obviously dated to kids with other things to think about seems as close to a purity of reaction as Assayas could naturally wish for, as his cinema is grounded in carefully composed displays of impulsive behaviour, physically contoured to transitive conditions. Boarding Gate (2007), for instance, seemed an exercise in genre determined to be intrinsically mediocre, just okay. The Corot encounter mirrors Assayas’ own submission before audience expectation. Somewhere in France a teenager may deem L’heure d’été not their favourite kind of thing, and this seems part of Assayas’ very design.
The film bides much of its time in the practical negotiation of the estate, as if the emotional cost to the family was itself caught up in liquidity. Frédéric suffers an outburst of tears while barely putting the car in park; otherwise it’s a family friend who pauses during inventory to pay respect to the past. The immersion in a purely material realm puts L’heure d’été in the company of Assayas’ porcelain-and-Cognac set drama Les destinées (2000), but shades of his more volatile portraits of youth are glimpsed in the figure of Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesang), Frédéric’s nubile daughter. While clearly not descended from Assayas’ gallery of bad girls, Sylvie, perverting privilege, gets busted for shoplifting and possession of dope. The young are only in love with childhood, states Hélène at one point, recognizing the vanity of a living will. Neither the young nor the old, both pre-occupied by simply getting by in the moment, can be too bothered with bric-a-brac; thus the material crisis at the heart of L’heure d’été is a decidedly middle-aged one. In spite of Berling’s probable role as director surrogate (and the extent to which a death in the family is autobiographically motivated), it is Sylvie and Eloise who channel most of the film’s available sympathy.
Hence the most affecting, contrasting sequences which emanate from the now vacated house, one a montage in which Eloise, returning for a last visit but finding the home locked, is glimpsed from within the hollow interior trying futilely to enter. Only a plastic telephone remains, an unused gift from Frédéric that’s still in its box (unlikely to end up in the Orsay, it becomes sentimentally priceless for being forlorn to all but the audience). Conversely, a coda involving Sylvie and her classmates occupying the estate for a last, epic party is witness to a state of renewal, of kids in thrall to the present, impervious to the home’s history. Still hedonistic but less anarchic, the party still titillatingly echoes the climactic takeover of an empty chateau in L’eau froide (1994). Assayas, older now, doesn’t stay till morning. Sylvie and her boyfriend scale the garden wall and return to nature, the camera craning to see them off while Assayas cues a vintage folk dittie which, as a comforting bulletin from the past, makes the future seem bright once again.
In crafting his own objet d’art, Assayas has paid careful consideration to the fine aesthetic practiced in Taiwan, particularly that of Hou Hsiao-hsien (to whom Assayas has devoted a keen documentary, and whose Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) was likewise the result of the Musee d’Orsay commision). Both directors build aesthetic worlds in which time is made to feel palpably inexorable, there in the folds of the everyday – the immanent rendered by film. Attuned to concerns of memory and the means by which it is stored and released, Assayas touches gracefully on the fugitive sensations of living by foregrounding that which is all too tangible. And yet, to take a measure of good design from Binoche’s Adrienne – ”If a piece works, it works. Beauty is beauty, you notice it” – one may be skeptical of L’heure d’été’s enduring quality. Neither cathartic nor devastating (to take his aforementioned films as example), the life lesson of Assayas’ limpid family drama may be simple indeed, but ultimately slight. Will successive generations behold Assayas’ piece as worthy of holding on to? Will it be of use? Perhaps in a museum, devoted to film. As one who has clung to the memory of more transfixing material from the ranging director, I can only hope that L’heure d’été will be casually deemed ”lesser Assayas’ in a future age.