I tend to read "French" in the description of a film and then overlook everything else about the film. I should remember to do as much research into a French film as any other.
"Summer Hours", stars Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier as siblings who bring their families to visit their mother/ grandmother at her country estate every summer. Mother takes her oldest son (Bierling) aside to give him her normal talk about her death and what he should do with all of the artworks and valuable objects in her house, annoying him enough to cause him to walk away. But she dies shortly after and the siblings have to deal with the estate and their past disagreements.
"Summer Hours" written and directed by Olivier Assayas ("Irma Vep") is, initially, an interesting film. An extremely meditative look at the relationship between the siblings and their mother, this depth provides the interest, holding our attention for a while.
But as the film progresses, it becomes episodic. And slow, repeating the themes over and over again.
The film opens with the entire clan invading grandmother's house in the country. The housekeeper seems a little overwhelmed, trying to keep the grandchildren from destroying the house, but she has been with the family for years, so she is used to the yearly invasion. Grandmother seems to welcome the activity, but becomes a little put out when she starts to open the gifts they have brought. Later, she corners her son and starts to give him a rundown of all of the valuable pieces in the house. He quickly becomes irritated; he has heard this before and doesn't like to hear her talk about death. There also seems to be friction between grandmother and her daughter (Binoche) who lives in America. The youngest son and his wife live in China, where the son runs a factory for Puma. Grandmother seems to be able to talk of little else other than her famous Uncle, a painter who will soon have a retrospective in San Francisco. Daughter tries to connect with her mother over this, but their appears to be too much bad blood, too much history.
This segment goes on for a while, and introduces us to each of the main characters in the story. When the various families leave, grandmother sits down and enjoys the peace and quiet. There is a slow fade to black and then we watch as the siblings gather for their mother's funeral. There are some interesting moments as we witness their grieving and how they start to deal with the loss of their mother. Then the conversation turns to the estate.
After some conversation, it seems like the estate becomes the only reason for the film to exist. This is what starts conversations between them. This is what drives the narrative; such as it is, forward. Maybe this is the point. Perhaps we are supposed to realize these siblings are not very close and only come together when they have to deal with family issues. This is made very clear, very quickly, yet we keep returning to it, we keep watching various scenes meant to illustrate this. It becomes repetitive.
Each time the image faded to black, I was ready for the film to end, but it quickly faded back and another chapter unfolded. This wouldn't be a bad method of storytelling, but the narrative doesn't really seem to move forward on a consistent basis.
And Binoche disappears for a lot of the film. The film really stars Charles Berling. He does a remarkably good job of playing the older brother, the patriarch of the family. You can see the weight of the world resting heavily on his shoulders and now that he is the only sibling living in France, he has to deal with their mother's affairs. His relationship with his wife and teenage daughter helps to break up the monotony of the rest of the story, giving us a glimpse into life in modern France.
But just as the relationship between the older son and his wife becomes interesting, a subplot about the Musee D'Orsay taking possession of some of their mother's pieces takes over the narrative. Really? This is interesting for a few moments, but when we sit in on a committee meeting while various French officials begin to debate whether the family deserves a tax credit against the inheritance tax, I began to tune out. Again.
"Summer Hours" has an interesting germ of an idea buried within the film. But a lot of extraneous detail and dialogue make it almost inaccessible to the audience.