Although it played at festivals around the world last year, there's scarcely a more befitting film to land in theaters right now than Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours. Ostensibly examining both the effect of globalization on the familial unit and the role of Art in our rapidly evolving, technology-driven lives, Summer Hours could easily help support an editorial entitled, say, "Our World In Transition." However, the American release's timing is particularly suitable because this is, well, a "summer movie" -- a nostalgic, sun-kissed reverie that goes down as smoothly as a cold glass of lemonade on a scorching afternoon. Whereas Kiyoshi Kurosawa played a similar premise for horror earlier this year in his devastating Tokyo Sonata, Assayas -- who, like Kurosawa, is generally regarded as an offbeat cult filmmaker -- plays it for sentiment. I'm tempted to declare Assayas' picture the gentler, soft-pop B-side to Kurosawa's unnerving nightmare, but I fear that would undermine Summer Hours' subtler potency.
The setup is almost frustratingly familiar: three middle-aged siblings reunite at their family's gorgeous estate in the French countryside. However, in a modern twist, each of the siblings resides on a different continent; Frederic (Charles Berling) lives in Paris, Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) in China, and Juliette Binoche's Adrienne in New York. When their mother passes away, the fractured nature of the trio's relationship to one another manifests itself in an existential crisis spurred by their joint inheritance of the family's considerable 19th-century art collection. Since the siblings retain varying degrees of attachment and responsibility to their family, cultural heritage, and the art itself, they are forced to determine whether to keep the heirlooms or have them sold off. Bickering ensues, tempers flare, but ultimately a thoughtful, restrained debate emerges among the principals, allowing Assayas to explore the thematic ramifications of this particular scenario.
Some stretches of Summer Hours drag, mostly because the characters hold us at arm's length. But most of the time, this detached quality works wondrously to the film's advantage, crystallizing the idea that objects play as much of a role as people in shaping our lives (a point made quite dramatically in a standout scene towards the picture's end). And speaking of that ending, Assayas swings for the fences in a shocking, utopian move I won't spoil. Let's just say that the director doesn't judge but rather romanticizes the utopian inclinations of génération après, sending us off on the cinematic equivalent of the summer high we all crave.