The most prominent comparisons that Assayas’ L’heure d‘été draw are, it would seem, to the work of the late Éric Rohmer. It’s perhaps a predictable move given that the film creates its heart through extended sequences of dialogue. In addition Assayas also wrote for that talisman of cinema journalism, Cahiers du cinema, thus furthering links and continuities between the two. Nonetheless it feels like that’s where those particular comparisons end. Assayas’ film lacks the often bitter barbs that typified the oeuvre of that elder statesman of the medium. As the film opens on a family gathering, centred on the most senior member with overtones of their coming death, the narrative obviously brings to mind the work of another francophone, Denys Arcand, and his wonderful Les Invasions barbares. In the end however, if Assayas’ film really bears comparison to anything, it is to Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. Higher praise is surely impossible, particularly since his film evokes the wonderfully nuanced worldview of the Japanese director whilst maintaining absolutely a voice all of his own.
With its opening scenes we are introduced to three generations of the same family. Most senior we have Héléne (Edith Scob1) who has devoted her life to preserving the memory and estate of her uncle, a respected artist of the name Paul Berthier. She has kept the house as he left it and lovingly maintained the various items he collected, many now valuable art pieces in their own right. It is in this home that Héléne’s three children were raised: the eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), the only child still living in France; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), an art designer for a Japanese firm working out of Manhattan and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who, seizing on financial opportunity, now lives with his wife and three young children in Beijing. The third generation incorporates Frédéric’s two teenagers, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling2). As a final strand to the fabric of the family we have Héléne’s long-serving and frank housekeeper, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan).
Having become an economist, Frédéric feels he somehow disappointed his family by failing to continue their strong association with the arts. Nonetheless, as the eldest son, he is the one taken aside by Héléne to discuss matters of how the estate might be broken up when she passes on. Uncomfortable with such discussion, he at first refuses to acknowledge the idea that his mother’s time will soon come but eventually relents and simply proclaims that, as they all love the estate and the memories it holds, her children will maintain the property as Héléne did. When her passing inevitably occurs, it is time for Frédéric to handle the affairs of his mother’s estate and so begins a wonderful tale of inheritance tax, insurance evaluation and French administrative law.
It’s hardly surprising then that the strength of the film is not forged in any sort of tight plotting or clever developments. It instead lies in the clever intertwining of ideas to events which highlights the interrelation between people and things and between art and memory. The crux of this is to state the true worth of art, a value not estimable through money or prestige, and how it serves as a social marker and vessel for human concerns. Nonetheless, if art first finds life with people then perhaps inevitably it must find a new historical role in a museum. In carefully unfolding group discussions we see an unavoidable clash between pragmatism and sentimentality. Just what is the cost of continuing to preserve the various items within the house in order to hand them onto the next generation? In addition, does the next generation even have a real attachment to the pieces anymore? Although Frédéric finds it hard to believe, Héléne recognises the likelihood of her possessions being passed on, outside of the family. After all, most of Berthier’s work has already left the estate and resides with various collectors around the world.
Although the film doesn’t seem to direct specific judgment on the matter, it does broach the topic of the new, global, art market and, with the diaspora of Héléne’s children, the ever growing geographical distances which families endure in this modern age. A more pertinent discussion concerns the life of the artwork as it passes from the family to the museum. Inevitably it must lose at least some of its essence and place as understood by those who grew up in relation to it. The paintings from Corot, the armoire, desk and chair from Louis Majorelle and the decorative panels by Odilon Redon become objects in a gallery for crowds to filter past. Their home is no longer a true residence for anyone and, in that sense, something precious, a certain vitality, must be forfeited. Nonetheless the preservation and staging the Musée d’Orsay provides opens up new possibilities. While the crowds and their guides may typically pour past in a curious but uninvolved fashion (we see one man chatting busily on his phone) it’s always possible for new bonds to be formed between the pieces and the general public who, before now, could never access such works. Behind the scenes in the gallery we’re shown a plaster statue made by the artist Degas which, according to the film, was broken by the rowdy childhood antics of the two sons. Thanks to the museum’s good work the statue is restored and standing once more.
It’s worth mentioning that it was the Musée d’Orsay who actually commissioned this film and the artefacts seen within are real pieces from their own collection. In fact, of all the artists mentioned within, only Berthier is fictional. Far from being an exaltation of the museum or its practices, Assayas’ film carefully balances sentiment with practicality, that theme remaining a constant. Certain bonds must be broken but only with that loss can others be built. In one beautiful rumination on this topic Éloïse is allowed to take one object away with her. She chooses a vase which, for years, stayed stowed in a cupboard as it was not to Héléne’s liking. Chatting with a younger relative Éloïse says, “He [Frédéric] said to choose anything. I couldn’t take advantage. I took something ordinary. What would I do with something valuable?” Of course the vase, a recent discovery for those perusing the estate, is the work of Félix Braquemond and is as important as any other object numbered among the collection. So a new personal story and relationship is forged; one that lies away from monetary value and art history. We can only surmise that in a theoretical sequel to this film we could easily be following Éloïse’s offspring as they discover this unusual addition among their inheritance.
What glues the entire film together, and perhaps best assures us of the director’s great skill, are the natural and unsentimental discussions that create the central narrative. Never intruding and always knowing when to focus in and when to float more freely, Éric Gautier’s camera captures effortlessly the energy and flow of conversations which often involve upwards of six or seven people. The actors all play their parts with a simple elegance. From the eldest to the youngest there seems an understanding that what fuels this film above all else is its evocation of the plainly mundane. Meanwhile, colouring the central narrative further we have various personal revelations unmasked throughout. Héléne apparently had a quasi-incestuous relationship with her uncle and it is left to her children to decide if this is a dark family secret or simply a newfound key to better understanding the path her life took. In finding that the world your parents inhabit is not one they exert perfect control over, comparisons can be drawn to Ozu’s wonderful I Was Born, But, but the details here, of adult children finding out about their now deceased mother, speak to different social parameters. Meanwhile Jérémie’s declaration that his stay in China will be extended indefinitely and Adrienne’s wedding announcement slip effortlessly into larger conversations and come with a wit and relaxed air that never fails to convince. Finally, in a pleasantly ambiguous exchange after collecting his daughter from the authorities, Frédéric and his wife agree to let her host one final party at the house they all hold so dear. Talking over dinner the two casually remark that they hope Sylvie and her friends behave themselves before both burst into laughter. The impression given, ever so gently, is that perhaps, once upon a time, the two parents failed to live up to such standards themselves.
Creating circularity the final sequence brings us back to the house and to the aforementioned party. Moving from room to room we find a new energy to the place, this time more brash and unchained; the aura of unchecked youthful exuberance replacing the artwork that used to adorn the walls. Wandering away from the crowd Sylvie finds her boyfriend, a secretive romance she refused earlier to reveal to her father. Strolling through the grounds she happens upon a cherry tree and recounts to her beau tales from her youth, of picking the fruit and of a painting once in her family depicting her grandmother, then a young girl of Sylvie’s age, picking that same fruit. She cuts off her recollections and turns from her friend saying, “My grandmother is dead. The house has been sold.” The past is not forgotten and the value of the work her grandmother guarded has been assimilated by the third generation despite the doubts held by others. Perhaps this particular strain of memory ends with Sylvie; Jérémie’s children likely too young and too far removed to remember much of what they were shown. That, however, is hardly the point. Everything has its place and its value as life flows onwards. Our memories may be honed and imprinted on certain objects and in certain locations but the act of remembrance continues unabated for all. We may feel a bitter twinge as we recognise the impermanence of such things but we cannot lose ourselves in that change. Something new always lies ahead. In the end we’ve always been those strands of floating weeds Ozu pictured, winding down life’s river.
1 Seeing her on-screen you might think the casting director was cheating in casting Scob as a seventy-five year old. In fact she was about seventy-three at the time of filming and no less capable of lighting up the screen than when she made her screen debut back in 1959 in Georges Franju’s own feature debut, La tête contre les murs, starting a long running professional partnership between the two.
2 Art imitates life a little here as the father and son relationship between Frédéric and Pierre is also shared in reality.