The whole corridor watched this. It was a warm June morning. The visitors had gone, and just as well. The doors and windows were open, the gardens full down to the lake, but it was Binoche Tuesday, so Curmudgeonly Colin, Grim Graeme, Sad Sid and Sapphic Steph and I watched in slowly growing horror as a beautifully set story of the end of summer’s lease played out before us. For this is the tale of the passing of generations: Hélène (Edith Scob), the mother, passing the family home and all its memories on to a generation that votes to flog the thing. And so go the Summer Hours.
And, gallingingly for her assembled adorers, Juliette Binoche is one of three kids and isn’t in the thing that much. And is blonde. Which is odd.
Why the horror? You know that time of life where you try to discuss The Will? And the kids resist, but your decrepitude makes it necessary, then you die…and the rude world rolls on…as your ghost watches them discuss what they want from life, how the money from the house is necessary for that, and the place gets emptied of possessions and memory…and you are forgotten but for rare moments in your grandkids’ tears? Yeah – that. Except without the ghost bit.
Hélène is in her 70s (a girl!!!). Her gaggle of children and their kids come to stay. It’s an occasional but regular visit. They bound around making noise, being fun and being family. She takes aside the son that stayed in France (Frédéric played by the placid, frowny Charles Berling) and walks him through all the objets d’art she kept from her spooky relationship with her uncle, suggesting what to keep and what to sell. For she knows the house will have to go for her children to move on in life. When the crowd departs, our TV room went very still, for Hélène looked so lonely in the empty drive. Well, except for Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) the decades-loyal housekeeper who stands as oldster-overlooking-the-betrayal of the house.
Hélène dies. And back come the kids to a house now properly echoey. Funerals and the like happen off-camera. We join them in a series of conversations that are always – horribly – leading to selling the place. They each promise to go with the majority vote as the discussions flip between rooms, occasional flashes of temper, and the inevitable.
God, this was sober viewing. If the film weren’t so smoothly Gallic, with la Binoche bringing some artsy off-handedness to the selfishness on display, I’d’ve run a mile. For Frédéric wants to keep the house and art (pictures, desks, cupboards…the uncle collected or made many respected pieces himself). Gaaaaah! It’s as well to be dead. I remember doing this for my parents’ exit, and spectating the destruction of Grandpa Gus’s habitat. These scenes stood as a frank warning to my colleagues in the TV room: wish all you want, it’s all going to go. The stuff that made up you turns out to be transient, and those you created will wrench their inheritance into a form you would never choose.
So – Frédéric loses the vote as his brother and sister admit their intentions. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) needs money to head to China with his family – there’s an opportunity he never saw coming and Europe won’t support his ambitions. He won’t be back for five years… I liked him, but could feel Frédéric straining to deny anger when they pop to a café. Similarly, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne gives quality artsy sister, her plans needing money and fewer returns to France. They need money and not the house to visit… Bummer.
And then the dismantling. Oh…youch. Assessors come to value the property, opening cupboards and moving paintings without a hint of respect. Not that anyone is challenging them. The nearest it gets is, much later, the favourite desk in a museum, when uptight Frédéric and his wife ponder how something so well-presented can feel so empty of purpose. Éloïse, meantime, visits the empty house like a spectre at a long-dead feast. Gets a nice vase out of it, mind.
Oh, but this is challenging viewing for those with wrinkles and property to leave behind. Summer Hours is the beautiful cruelty of time. There’s no plot as such, just nice, casual performances from all the family. Then comes a final set of scenes that underline the misery with equally cruel joy. The grandkids have a party.
It’s a well-behaved one, so don’t worry. There are tons of them, playing music, tossing balls in once-revered rooms, climbing walls and – in a moment of grand-daughterly pausing as mentioned above – thinking of those who went through those rooms long before. But only for a moment. The sunshine, fun and freshness of youth override the old with their own hours in the sunshine.
Terrifying and terrific. You’ll watch this film in horror if you’re old, with no small amount of fear and guilt if you’re in your middle years. And if you’re young? Yeah. The world is yours for a while. Enjoy it.
Get thee to the usual outlets – and Amazon Prime.