Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Summer Hours, Family, and Place

Summer Hours - Olivier Assayas (2008)

Just saw Assayas' Summer Hours and was very impressed. Although I'm sure there are many parallels to other films that employ a setting of a French house in the country to great effect, I couldn't help but thinking of Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country when watching this film. Both films are dealing with similar familial issues: an aging parent, and different roles and life situations among the children. Both films have a lot of dialogue about art, life, and death, and both films create wonderful moments through the use of the camera in capturing stillness and movement in and around the country house.

One thing I appreciated about Summer Hours, however, was how well the film held up after the focus of the film changes to the children after the first act (moving beyond the narrative confines of another day in the country as in Tavernier's film), and then finally on one of the grandchildren in the final scene. Each of the characters are well-drawn and well-acted, and their relationships do not fall prey to cliche in their enactment of roles they occupy in the family.

An important aspect of the film (also present in Tavernier's film) is the aura surrounding the house, and how the house changes over time with it occupied or unoccupied. Indeed, the house, full of life in the beginning, abandoned and gutted in the middle, then returned to vibrancy in a completely different way in the end, gives a centering feel to the events. We feel its absence in the urban scenes in the middle, which is why it felt so right to return to it in the final moments. Although, perhaps it is not just the house that is important, but the whole yard and estate: the arch of trees over the walkway up to the house, the pond down off the hill the house rests on, the lawn on which the summer dinner table is set. Ultimately, there is a sense of timelessness in the estate that transcends the objects and people that fill it, though we note how much a family's memories are concretized in physical place and object.

The most poignant scene of the film to me is the scene with the housekeeper moving around the outside of the house and peering in the windows at what was once her home and the place of her vocation. The camera observes her from the inside, and we wonder in our position whether she would wish to come back inside, whether we might open a door for her, and if we did, whether she would be content staying in the yard outside, knowing that the emptiness of the inside of the house would trouble her all the more if she were to breathe the stale air of the house. This reversal, the housekeeper now the voyeur, is incredibly peculiar and powerful, as it makes us think on the above.

I'm reminded of my mom's ongoing interest in her grandfather's cabin up on the north shore of Lake Superior. It has not been in the family for thirty years, yet, she still feels very connected to it. Recently, whenever she's been up north near the cabin, she's stopped by to see whether its current owners are home, and this past summer, she was in luck. The owners were gracious enough to invite her in to look around and take a few pictures. As she describes it, there were many elements of the cabin that were exactly as she remembered it: the small kitchen table made by her grandpa from trees cut near the house, the exposed log frame seen inside, the one-car open-air garage, and the upstairs attic-space where she used to sleep on a cot as a child. She's extremely proud of these memories and was elated that the owners haven't changed the cabin beyond her recognition. It was a story for her to tell that though she is now on the outside-looking-in at what was once in some way her childhood cabin, she was invited in to relive and recapture some of her old family memories.

On a related note, I recently stumbled across a painting done of my great-grandparents' cabin in my parents' attic. I had been looking for something to put on the walls of the apartment my wife and I had just moved into, and I found it along with some old paintings my parents weren't using, covered by a dusty rug in one corner of the attic. I brought it down and showed it to my mom, not realizing what it was, and my mom responded with her signature, "Oh my gosh!" She told me that a family friend had painted the cabin, and that it used to hang in her parents' house in Anoka. To my surprise, she said that I could hold onto it if I had some use for it.

Now adding color in its watercolor greens and blues to the white wall of the apartment (we're unable to paint it unfortunately), the painting reminds me of my mom's experience this past summer. It reminds me of her love of family and family memories, and how much these are tied to particular places such as the cabin. It also makes me think of my place in all of this. Though I have never seen the cabin, I am connected to family (my great-grandparents who I do not remember, my grandparents, aunt and uncles, and particularly my mom) through the painting. It is a privilege for me to be using the painting, and I feel I honor my mom and family in doing so. It is this familial passing on and honoring process that is dealt with so powerfully in Summer Hours.

Returning to discussion of the film, how do we interpret the ending? With sadness in that the house will soon be gone? With hope that the granddaughter embraces the importance of her familial memories? And what do we take away from the film as to Assayas' approach to globalization and fragmentation in light of a family spread across the globe?

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