Moliere once wrote that the wonder of a French vacance lay in its “deep, profound dullness, those hours and hours of time, marked only by meals and interminable glasses of wine.” A similar kind of wonder propels the intimate, endearingly smug “L’heure d’ete” (international title: “Summer Hours”) — the latest from versatile French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Droll and slow and delightfully protracted, it really does feel like a summer vacance — complete with the realization that nothing is happening or going to happen, and the glorious sense of wasting of one’s time over wine and food and not very interesting conversation among family members who don’t have all that much to say to one another. It’s boring, yes, but what a civilized, intriguing boredom!
“L’heure” is unlike anything Assayas has created before, but then his career is defined by his wide range of interests, and his famed, staunch refusal to repeat himself. The same man who made the sickeningly violent “Demonlover (2002)” or the tricky and pensive “Irma Vep (1996),” turns his gaze this time on a classic bourgeois family, their house and the valuable artworks stored in it. At first glance this is the stuff of classical French fiction (Proust, anyone?), and even the way cinematographer Eric Gautier lights and composes the frames has the muted, beige-and-sepia tones of a Corot painting. Far from being a period story however, “L’heure” is set firmly in the present. The film opens on a family celebrating a matriarch’s birthday — Helene (Edith Scob, a former femme fatale to match Bardot) is an elegant 75-year-old woman with three children and many grandchildren, all of whom have gathered at her huge, stately house located about an hour from Paris. The estate is surrounded by lush greenery and the garden itself is a botanical paradise of summer flowers. Inside, the rooms are full of precious artworks collected by the original owner: the artist Paul Berthier and Helene’s uncle, with whom she may or may not have had a romantic affair. Her children privately speculate on the nature of that relationship, which judging by the way Helene has devoted her latter life to managing the collection and the house, went deeper than they’d like to admit. Helene was, and still is, a cultural snob — she frequently talks of her artist uncle but never about her long-dead husband, who sold water heaters to provide for his family.
A fascinating presence during the first 20 minutes, Helene exits the story due to sudden death and her children — eldest son Frederic (Charles Berling), daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and younger son Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) — are left with the problem of the disposal of her effects. In another era, it would have been unthinkable for the siblings to part with their heritage — but now, apart from Frederic, no one is interested in keeping the house. He’s the only one who lives in Paris — Adrienne is a ceramics artist in New York and Jeremie manages a sneaker factory in China. Assayas shows how Frederic’s notions of lifestyle and values are outmoded if not antiquated: His brother and sister are intent on career-building and financial success, with very little interest or reverence for their homeland. Symbolically, Frederic is the only one who weeps after his mother’s death — even at the funeral, his siblings are dry-eyed and businesslike. It’s decided that the art collection will go to the Musee D’Orsay (whose curators had been eyeing the works for a long time) and the estate sold and divided by three.
Other threads run through this intricate fable of French family fracturing. On her birthday, Helene had shown Frederic some choice pieces from the Berthier collection, like an Art Nouveau cabinet, a rolltop desk, a silver tea set, some glass vases stored hodge-podge under the kitchen sink. The capper is a broken sculpture by Degas, thrust into a plastic bag in the bottom of the cabinet. Helene had guarded these possessions but with a carefree, casual love that ultimately breathed life into these antiques. A genuine sadness overcomes us when later, the same things are shown proudly on display in the Musee. Without Helene’s personal papers strewn over the desk or her garden flowers thrown into the vases, they look lifeless and devoid of any kind of spirit. At one point Adrienne remarks that the past “doesn’t speak to me, and even if it did, I’m not interested.” And that would be the defining emotion of the film as well. But even she has a corner in her heart for the past: In one lovely sequel, her whole figure lit by a soft autumnal light, she takes down the tea set and claims it as hers.