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Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours"

The Erasure of Art

by KIM NICOLINI

Reading about Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours and watching the trailer, I could not bring myself to get inspired to see this movie. While I’m a huge fan of Assayas’ other film, this new installment just seemed so horribly middle-brow, the kind of foreign film that the bourgeoisie flocks to in droves. Even though I love Assayas’ films, I couldn’t imagine myself getting through this movie without being annoyed and bored. Here is the description from the official website:

The divergent paths of three forty-something siblings collide when their mother, heiress to her uncle’s exceptional 19th century art collection, dies suddenly. Left to come to terms with themselves and their differences, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a successful New York designer, Frederic (Charles Berling), an economist and university professor in Paris, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), a dynamic businessman in China, confront the end of childhood, their shared memories, background and unique vision of the future.

This is the perfect description of the kind of Euro-bourgeois cinematic dreck that I despise. Why on earth would I want to sit through two hours of this drivel? Well, I decided to see it anyway because it is an Assayas film, and it did receive outstandingly favorable reviews from critics whose opinions I respect. So I saw it. When the movie opened with a family gathering on French country estate, you know the kind with tables full of fruit, cheese and wine and gleeful children frolicking in the garden while their well-groomed parents smile on, I was alarmed that my suspicions were going to pan out and that I was going to have to endure almost two hours of the suffering of the Euro-privileged class consuming wine and cheese and recounting their woes.

I was wrong. I should have known better. After all, this is an Olivier Assayas film. The amazing thing about Summer Hours is that Assayas takes the this insulated family setting and explores all the same themes we see in his other films, such as demonlover and Boarding Gate: the disintegration of connection and communication in a world of ever expanding global capital; the quiet struggle of the laboring class; the replacement of culture with manufacturing; the insidious dehumanizing force of global capital. Admittedly, I prefer that these things come in the enticing packages of internet porn (demonlover) or fetishistic female assassins in black panties and high heels (Boarding Gate), but what is so incredible about this movie is that Assayas’ uses the form of the Euro-bourgeois art film to make his point. He incorporates a mode of cinema that represents the privileged cultural class to make his points about class and global capitalism, so the film is self-reflexive in its very construction/format.  Assayas’s politics are woven into the film subtly and quietly and therefore are so much more effective. He doesn’t get on a soapbox and preach. He doesn’t provide overt critiques. Rather, Assayas shows us his observations through a series of character interactions. It is the accumulation of signals and symbols that brings his view to fruition: the quiet meaning of objects, subtle interactions between characters, movement, light, and color work together to make us feel and see Assayas’ observations about the economical and political state of things.

As stated in the quote above, on the surface, the movie is about how three siblings decide to handle the estate of their deceased mother and the distribution of her art collection. That’s true. That is what happens literally in the movie, but really what the movie is about is the erasure of the aura and the meaning of art, the replacement of hand-crafted objects by mass manufacturing, and the transition of history to a new era where global capital stakes claim over culture. Yes, the mother Helene dies, but she doesn’t die until we understand her as a kind of extinct species who bears little connection to her children. The movie shows us the process of forfeiting the legacy of legacies and of divorcing ourselves from a connection to art and history by getting sucked into the rapid moving material culture of capital. Before Helene dies, Assayas spends a good chunk of the film showing us that her passing isn’t just the death of a human, but the death of an entire culture. We learn that her children represent a global capital triad – Asia/Europe/America. Jeremie can’t visit his mother often because he is busy manufacturing Puma sneakers in China where labor is cheap and profits are high. Frederic is a professor of economics in Paris. Adrienne lives in New York where she creates high-priced accessories for the economically elite. The gathering is a celebration of Helene’s birthday where she is given a phone with three receivers. She looks at the phone like it’s an alien object and feels as disconnected from the phone as she does from her three children. She is not receiving their signals. After her children and her grandchildren leave, we see her sitting alone in quiet isolation in the dark. Helene and her world of legacies and hand-crafted objects of art have been left behind for factories in China, new economic theories, and fast-moving fashion. After Helene dies and her estate is disposed of, the phone remains in its original box collecting dust on a window sill. It, along with her legacy, is forgotten.

For a movie in which not a lot happens, there sure is a lot of frenetic movement as the disposition of things is dealt with. People are constantly moving in and out of the frame, and the objects are constantly getting shuffled. It’s like the motion of the film is the motion of global capital that runs quietly yet insidiously through the film. And speaking of things, it’s amazing how Assayas really does instill the objects in the movie with intense meaning. The Corot paintings that Frederic is so obsessed with become enormous signifiers. First, when he shows them to his son, his son shrugs and could care less. “Well it’s another era,” he says. Later, when Frederic shows the appraisers the Corots, neither one of them are familiar with the work. They ask if the paintings are of a local scene, and Frederic explains that they depict the field which was replaced by the supermarket outside of town. The appraisers perk up with enthusiastic recognition – of the supermarket, not of the art – because we live in a world economy where supermarkets bear more meaning and recognition than art.

One of the items that Helene takes particular pride in is a hand-crafted wooden desk. The desk is donated to a museum, and the last time we see it a young man on a tour turns his back to the desk, fills up the frame of the film, and talks loudly into a cell phone about meeting for a movie. The desk is held frozen and isolated in the room behind him, not unlike Helene was frozen and isolated in the room of her house before she died. The world of cell phones and rapid digital communications is not one which is accommodating to hand-crafted wooden desks. There is also a lot of emphasis on the Odilon Redon decorative panels, something used to decorate a home. So many of the objects in the movie are functional –tea sets, platters, vases. When the siblings dispose of the objects, yes they are disposing of history and legacy, but they are relinquishing themselves to the world where household objects are mass manufactured in China, where art gets pulled down, boxed up, shipped off to museums and stripped of its aura, where everything has the gleam of the new but not a trace of aura.

The most infused object in the film is a glass vase with green circles on it. The vase is important not because Helene loves it or because the siblings find it particularly beautiful. In fact, Helene thinks it’s ugly, and the siblings don’t know it exists until the appraisers tell them that it is very valuable. The vase is important because it is the favorite of Helene’s housekeeper Eloise. It is the vase that Eloise always uses for fresh cut flowers. In a way (and true to Assayas’ vision), Eloise is the real focus of the film. As the quiet laborer at the film’s core, she is the heart and the pulse of the movie. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the scrambling siblings is the elderly woman who has worked for Helene and Helene’s uncle for her entire lifetime. Eloise has spent her whole life as a housekeeper in that house. She is the true keeper of things because she is the one who dusts them, polishes them, and cares for them and for their owner. She has lived with those objects nearly every day of her life, yet when Helene dies, Eloise is pushed to the margins.

The scenes with Eloise are seemingly small but end up being enormous in their impact. Eloise comes to the house when the appraisers are there packing everything up. She states to the siblings that it is disturbing to see everything in such a state of disarray. Frederic tells her that it is very hard. Eloise stoically responds, “Yes, it must be even harder on the family.” This quiet statement is so profoundly telling of the state of labor and privilege. Eloise is the one who has given her life’s blood to that house and those objects, yet because of the blood/lineage of the family, her connection to the estate is completely disregarded. The scenes with Eloise walking up to the vacant home and being locked out of it and of her being dropped off in front of her nephew’s apartment building, a generic towering public housing complex, expose so much about the film’s politics and the state of economics. Eloise is the disenfranchised laboring class which is being pushed to the margins while Puma sneakers are being manufactured in China. She is what is being left behind along with history. Frederic tells Eloise to take an object of remembrance, and she picks the glass vase, not knowing how valuable it is. She picks it because it’s pretty, and it makes her happy. To Eloise, objects still have aura because it is their use and appreciation that give them life.

In regards to what the film is saying about class, culture, and privilege, Assayas observes but doesn’t necessarily demonize anyone. He is showing the impact of globalization across class. He shows characters like the insulated Helene with her art collection, her clambering children, and her dedicated housekeeper Eloise, but he doesn’t overtly judge the characters. He shows us complexities of relationships and class, but ultimately he doesn’t overtly take sides. He shows how all these people are affected by the voracious machine of global capital. If we did want to analyze what "side" Assayas is on, it would be the side of Eloise, but I think that there is also an undercurrent of the loss of individuality and spirit whether in objects or people that results from global economic homogenization. One of the interesting things Assayas does is take potentially contentious subjects like privilege, class and culture and explore the dynamics at work without proselytizing or taking sides. The real villain in the movie, if you want one, is the quiet force of global capital which affects everyone it contacts. This is why Summer Hours s so much like Assayas’ other films.

The film ends with a bookend image of Helene’s granddaughter and her schoolmates having a party at the vacated house. In a moment of self-reflexive melancholy, the granddaughter acknowledges that her future in that life is gone. There will be no more estate, no more gardens, no more objects of art to pass down through history. The opening scene no longer exists. It has been wiped out by global forces moving much too fast for Helene and Eloise’s world to keep up. The closing scene is the final stamp of beauty, brilliance and melancholy on this incredible film. For a movie in which not a lot happens, I was blown away and absolutely riveted by this piece of cinema. Summer Hours is one of Olivier Assayas’ finest hours.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.