Olivier Assayas is having a hard time sitting still. It’s the first day of October 2008, and the French director is set to screen his latest drama, Summer Hours, at the New York Film Festival that evening. The sort of jittery nervousness one associates with introducing a new work, however, isn’t the reason that he’s pacing around the conference room in IFC’s midtown offices. Rather, the conversation has turned to a subject that tends to bring out a passionate response from this critic-turned-auteur. “I’ve always argued that I’m not a cinephile when it comes to what I create,” says Assayas, 54. “Movies should not exclusively be about other movies! Even Irma Vep [his 1996 narrative about a fractured film set] wasn’t just about referencing other directors. Cinema is like every other art form that’s connected to our experience of life; it’s simply a tool that’s used to reproduce feelings. Go watch a movie by Robert Bresson or look at an Impressionist painting. You can feel someone from the past talking to you.”
The past, and the present’s (dis)connection to it, is the central concern of Assayas’s family drama, now opening for wide release, in which three grown siblings—Frdric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jrmie (Jrmie Renner)—find themselves dealing with the clan’s country estate. Judging from the scrum of grandchildren giddily rushing through gardens in the film’s opening sequences, this dwelling is still a filial hub. But their aging mother (Eyes Without a Face’s Edith Scob) isn’t in the best of health. Given that only Frdric still lives in France—Adrienne is a New York artist, while Jrmie is relocating his brood to China to run a factory—it’s likely that this home will not host either reunions or Mom’s high-art heirlooms for much longer.
“It started with the artwork,” Assayas claims. He’d been contacted by the Muse d’Orsay, along with several other directors, to contribute a short film to a project commemorating the institution’s 20th anniversary. The omnibus was eventually scuttled; his fascination with the museum’s purpose, however, continued to inspire him. “I began thinking about how all these pieces hanging on the walls had been born out of real life, then ended up entombed in a museum. At the same time, my mother was not doing well; I could sense she was losing interest in being here. The longer I thought about what my brothers and I would do when she’s gone, the more I began to connect the mourning of family with the idea of art finishing its life cycle in the equivalent of a zoo.” Naturally, Summer Hours helped the director channel his own grief (his mother passed away shortly before production started). Charles Berling, the actor whom Assayas calls “my alter ego,” suggests that his longtime collaborator was also exploring notions of loss on a much larger scale. “The story is about a generation who has a strong cultural memory,” Berling says over the phone. “But they are no longer attached to centuries of French culture; Juliette and Jrmie’s characters don’t even care about their childhood house, because they’re hardly ever in the country. I think that concerns Olivier a great deal—the sense that most of Europe now has no sense of place, history or identity.”
A filmmaker of French-Hungarian descent who’s worn his love of American punk and Hong Kong movies on his sleeve, Assayas is no stranger to cross-cultural currents, and has dealt with the alienating aspects of a homogenized, globalized world before—see the psychotronic corporate thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007). But by tackling the subject obliquely, the director acutely humanizes the situation rather than reducing it to hip poses; Frdric’s admission that he doesn’t know about his teen daughter’s troubles “because my job always takes me overseas” says far more about 21st-century living than Asia Argento’s vamping about. “Everybody mentions that line,” Assayas says. “But to me, the most important moment is the end, when the young woman recognizes the landscape that her great-uncle painted. She’s made a connection with what’s come before her, and sees her life is indeed part of a family history and a social history that’s much larger.” Did Summer Hours help the cosmopolitan filmmaker do something similar? He nods vigorously, smiling. “I knew I was treading into Renoir territory here, so yeah. It’s the most French movie I’ve ever done.”
Summer Hours opens Fri 15.
See also Summer Hours Review