Olivier Assayas on 'Summer Hours'

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French director Olivier Assayas, having shot to celebrity in 1996 with his vampish art-house hit ‘Irma Vep’, has met with mixed responses to his loose trilogy about modern youth culture in an era of globalisation: ‘Demonlover’, ‘Clean’ and ‘Boarding Gate’. Fans are returning, however, for his latest film, ‘Summer Hours’, a thoughtful and moving French country-set family drama which deals with the thorny issues of art, history and inheritance as, following their mother’s death, her three children reassemble to divide the artworks bequeathed by their great-uncle, a famous artist

Was the film commissioned by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay?

‘Well, it grew out of a short film which was part of a collective project which they were supposed to finance, but the Ministry of Culture did not authorise the payment. So I developed it on my own, the same way Hou Hsiao-hsien developed “The Flight of the Red Balloon”, which basically started at the same place. Afterwards, the Musée d’Orsay were as helpful as they could be, letting us shoot in the museum and allowing us to take artworks out.’

How did your idea for the script develop?

‘I scribbled some notes for the short with ideas like: making art from real life, from the relationship of individuals to nature or to their own experience of the world – and the art ends up buried in museums. Which is a very abstract notion. Once I started thinking how I might develop that, I realised that it had to be through a family. I wanted a first act when you see the house and the art in the house, alive as it were, with the real family in some kind of celebration. And I knew that after that I wanted to show how those objects will make their way into the museum.’

Was the country house difficult to find?

‘My location scout on “Boarding Gate” came upon one – and the minute I walked in, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. It was crumbling, modest, very much an artist’s house. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have made the film if I had not found the right house. This house is beautiful, because it contains the soul of the people who have lived there.’

This film sees a return to the concerns of your earlier work

‘Initially, I wanted to move away from things I had done in “Destinées Sentimentales” and “Late August, Early September”, because they were so immersed in the fabric of French culture. It was suffocating. I just wanted to run out of it, you know. But then, gradually, as time passed, I had this longing to go back there and reconnect with things that I felt I had left behind.’

Reconnect in what way?

‘Well, the first thing is that the film is almost entirely in French. With French actors. Which makes a big difference in terms of how I work with actors. Also, it’s an ensemble piece that’s dealing with something that’s pretty close to home. I could let the actors improvise because, for all of them, it’s a situation with which they are all very familiar’.

Your film is concerned with the changing relationship of the French to their own culture.

‘Part of what “Summer Hours” is about is that people don’t think that they need a solid relationship to their own culture – and to their own roots. They won’t even acknowledge those things as their roots. Their roots are somewhere in the modern world and they are in modern pop culture.’

How has the reaction been to the film?

‘The film has done well – especially in France – and has taken me into areas that are very interesting for me. I was in a cinema, debating with the audience in a provincial French town. Those people didn’t want to know about cinema, about modernity, about narrative or whatever – they wanted to discuss the issues in the film and how the characters react or don’t react. It was unexpected, but very interesting. All of a sudden, I’m exactly where I’ve always wanted to be as a director: having a straightforward relationship with an audience who have reacted directly to the story I’m telling.’‘Summer Hours’ opens on July 18.

Author: Wally Hammond


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