In 2006, the famed Musee d'Orsay in Paris celebrated its 20th year. Housed in a former railway station, the museum is home to works by Monet, Degas, Cezanne and van Gogh, as well as many other significant artists. Now, the museum has added to its collection a series of cinematic works by modern movie masters. To help commemorate its first two decades, the Musee d'Orsay commissioned four directors to create films that feature both the gallery and living French treasure Juliette Binoche. Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours is the second in this series, which began with Chinese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first Western film, Flight of the Red Balloon (2007).
When art collector Helene (Edith Scob) passes away shortly after her 75th birthday, her three adult children must decide how to deal with her possessions--namely a large art collection--and the family home. Eldest son Frederic (Charles Berling) wants to preserve the house, keeping it as a residential museum and a summer home for reunions. Youngest child Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) has recently started working in Beijing, and needs the money some of the artwork would bring, while sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) has no plans to return to France from New York and also votes to sell. As the arrangements for disassembling the valuable collection begin, each sibling encounters various pieces that both remind them of their past in their childhood home and reveal the history their own children will not be able to share.
It's exciting to see an organization such as the Musee d'Orsay actively commission new art, especially in a medium not designed for museum viewing. While the majority of the work found in the gallery was created between 1848 and 1915, their selection of four modern directors--Hou, Assayas, American Jim Jarmusch and Chilean Raoul Ruiz--to create these visual homages displays an encouraging willingness to invest in the future of artmaking.
Serving as both director and screenwriter, Frenchman Assayas has created a well-balanced and self-aware work. Like the film's matriarch, Assayas knows that the art featured in the film will have significance only to a small portion of the younger generations, and allows it to quietly imbue the film with a sense of history, but not the stuffiness of a security-filled museum. It's also understood that the original purpose of the work was to beautify homes and elevate the ordinariness of our living spaces. And the characters' casual handling of priceless objects is a refreshing reminder of their original function. At one point, two of the characters remark on a visit to another private collection, appropriately smirking at the extreme security measures taken by the owner. The ambience of the display setting can often change how the work is received, which makes the informality of Summer Hours such a delightful change.
This air of familiarity extends to the film's dramatic content as well. It contains no powerhouse performances, no wailing funeral scenes. It's a beautifully natural piece, as Berling, Binoche and Renier capture the easy rhythms of a loving family in the midst of a stressful disagreement. Scob's appearance as the bygones-dwelling Helene is majestic, her aristocratic presence not stifling her maternal thoughtfulness.
Summer Hours is a simple film, but that is its greatest strength. Using an uncomplicated harp and piano score and serene cinematography by Eric Gautier, it showcases both visual and performance art in an accessible manner that encourages a bit of reflection, rather than rushing us on to the next gallery wing.