EDITH SCOB (LEFT) AND JULIETTE BINOCHE IN SUMMER HOURS.
PHOTO: JEANNICK GRAVELINES.
Starting a little over a year ago, after receiving an American retrospective jointly held at Yale and the Lower East Side’s Anthology Film Archives, more than one cinepundit began floating the idea that fifty-something French filmmaker Olivier Assayas had in his most recent films invented a genre unto his own: “the globalist thriller.” David Denby, in a review of Boarding Gate that by in large misses the boat on that film’s peculiar charms, added the modifier “nasty.” Perhaps another observer would be more inclined to add “sensual” or “kinetic,” but regardless it’s the increasingly interconnected, always unforgiving worlds one finds themselves in when watching one of Assayas’s recent films which ultimately prove nasty, not the films themselves.
This has never been more apparent than in the director’s latest feature, Summer Hours, a lovely and bittersweet tale of an upper middle class French family’s struggle to properly deal with the legacy and estate of its declining matriarch. Edith Scob’s Hélène is 75 and presides over a home now devoid of other residents but stocked full of the highly praised and potentially lucrative artwork and craftsmanship of her long dead uncle, Paul, and his contemporaries. However as her family will soon find and as she accurately predicts, heirlooms come with a cost.
Despite the gorgeous, tucked-away house and prestigious family collection, the emotional value of these properties is overtaken by the economic and administrative drain they place on the family’s increasingly disconnected younger generation, two of whom have fled Europe for opportunities in Asia and the United States. After Hélène’s death, her children struggle with what to do with her home and the artwork, their desires greatly complicated by their lives in multinational industries on disparate continents. In Summer Hours, Assayas reaffirms the globalist impulse of his thrillers within a more genteel and perhaps more accessible mode.
Summer Hours, which features Juliette Binoche and Assayas regular Charles Berling in its large ensemble, was released in and throughout Europe last year before its North American premiere at last fall’s New York Film Festival. It will reach American screens via IFC Films early this spring.
WRITER-DIRECTOR OLIVIER ASSAYAS.
PHOTO BY: JEANNICK GRAVELINES.
Summer Hours seems to me to be primarily interested in how globalization is evolving notions of family and national identity. I know that you’ve dealt with similar themes quite a bit in your thrillers and other genre pieces. What inspired you to deal with that subject in the form of a family drama? When I started writing this story I had no clear notions of where I was heading because my starting point was really objects and how objects end up in a museum, meaning how objects belonging to the world of the living end up in the world of the dead. I soon realized that if I was to reconstruct the path of these artworks I would have to get a view of how they belong to the life of a community, or in this case a classic European family. It kind of dawned on me at some point that I was going to make for the first time a film dealing with a classic French family and classic values. And at least because I’m talking in the present tense, I would have to describe those values at a very specific time, meaning now, when the world is going through major transformations.
So it all took shape very naturally because the reason why the world is changing, the reason why these people are selling their family home, the reason why all those objects end up the way they do end up at the Musée d’Orsay has to do with the way the world is changing in general: How the big history of modern society changes the small history of a group of people, how the globalization we deal with in abstract terms — we read about it, we watch movies about it, we hear about it in the news — is in fact something that hits home in very dramatic ways. Ultimately I wanted to show how those characters are defined in ways we are not so aware of, are defined by the way global economics are changing. So it allows me to view those themes in smaller ways, but ultimately that’s what it’s all about. These bigger trends are about the intimate daily lives of individuals.
So how do you think this affects the characters’ notions of “Frenchness” across generational lines? Do you think that, for instance, the young man, Pierre, played by Emile Berling, will think of his national identity in a markedly different way than the generation portrayed by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier? Kind of. It’s a big question mark. It’s less open, because he’s a teenager and he’s involved in teenage culture, and teenage culture is pretty globalized, in the sense that it’s ultimately the same all over the world and there’s very little Frenchness of that kind that attracts Pierre. He is a kid of his time and he’s more concerned with conforming than finding his own identity. So I suppose that at some point he will have to ask himself those questions, and which way he will lean I have no idea. But I know a little more about his sister, Sylvie, who is more mature, because teenage girls are more mature than teenage boys. For a long time in the film you think that she’s a baby, that she’s not a grown-up yet, and all of those issues don’t really concern her. She doesn’t care too much. You feel that her parents, her family, are speaking instead of her because they keep on questioning what they are going to leave to the next generation, and so on and so forth. Yet they never really bother to ask [her] anything. In the back of their mind — and also in the back of the mind of the viewer, until halfway into the film — we think that she has no idea. She’s not concerned, and ultimately she’s bored by talk of the estate and Paul’s artwork, but ultimately we realize that it’s her own way of appropriating something that she’s feeling should have or could have belonged to her, and it’s flitting away. When she’s in the meadow with her boyfriend, we realize that she understands everything that has been going on, and she’s concerned with the real issues of what is being lost. It’s not so much the artwork; it’s not so much the house; it’s not so much nostalgia for things gone by. She knows that what is being lost are the landscapes painted by her grand uncle. It’s the ghosts of the past that have been haunting those places. She feels the ghosts. When she’s in the meadow, she actually does see her grandmother with Paul Berthier painting her as a little girl, and she sees the cherry tree. She envisions what has happened in those landscapes, and she knows that it’s this invisible presence of the past — its beauty, or its emotion — that is going to be lost. And it’s something that could have enlightened her life, but somehow she knows her life will be elsewhere.
It’s kind of interesting that you mentioned the ending there, because one thing I thought while watching it this most recent time was that the film kind of begins with the children at play at the house — in a sort of state of innocence, if you will. But by the end of the film you feel like she has sort of connected with the very adult concerns of property and tradition that her father’s generation has been dealing with the entire film. And she has become a grown-up. She is not a child anymore, and there’s some kind of wake-up call to Federic in a way, that his daughter has become an adult.
This film was partially supported by the Musée d’Orsay, correct? Not exactly. It has a more complex story than that. I mean it was initiated by the Musée d’Orsay, because they wanted to have some kind of omnibus movie with contributions from filmmakers from all kinds of different cultures. It was supposed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the museum, and I was one of the filmmakers. I started developing this story as part of that project. Then the project fell apart, in part because I felt that with these characters in this story there was something bigger at stake than what was capable in a short film. I kept working on it and it became completely autonomous, disconnected from the museum, because the project fell apart; they never managed to find the money to make it happen. So the film was financed completely outside of the museum and had no financial connection whatsoever with the museum, but because of the origin of the project, I wrote different scenes that had to take place within the museum. At some point my producers came back to the museum and said, “Are you going to help us? We need your support — we need to use some of the artwork in the museum.” For many reasons they were very disappointed that the initial project never happened, but they have been very generous in terms of allowing us to use some of the artwork, to take artwork out of the museum, and to use it on our set. That’s something that they never do, so it was really very much of a statement for them.
Strangely enough this movie was financed in a much simpler and easier fashion than most of my projects. We got money from Région Ile-de-France. We got money from state television. We got money from Canal Plus. All in all it had a fairly harmonious production story, which is something completely new for me. [laughs] It had to do with the fact that unlike my recent films it’s solely spoken in French. It’s shot near Paris. It’s not that expensive. It has name actors. There’s a few elements that are within the logic of the French film industry, I suppose. Much more than say, Boarding Gate.
When you make the family dramas or dramas about relationships that often involve academics or writers, it seems like you prefer working with Eric Gautier, who was also your director of photography on Clean. Whereas when you make the thrillers, you more often than not work with new people, or with Denis Lenoir. I was just wondering what specifically about your relationship with Eric works for this type of film? Well, you know, we made Clean together, and Irma Vep, which are kind of also part of my rock ’n’ roll movies. But in the case of Summer Hours it had to do with the fact that we made Les destinées sentimentales together. And for me this movie is like an intense postscript to Les destinées sentimentales. It’s some kind of companion piece; it has a very essential connection to some of the themes and some of the characters in Les destinées sentimentales and it’s also for that reason that I wanted to use Charles Berling again, also Dominique Reymond and Jean-Baptiste Malartre. They all play characters who were like the Barnery family in Les destinées sentimentales. I also used some artwork in the house that was in Charles Berling’s house in Les destinées sentimentales.
SUMMER HOURS. PHOTO BY: JEANNICK GRAVELINES.
I suppose the fact that when we were shooting Les destinées sentimentales I very much connected with Eric in terms of common love for French landscapes and for Impressionist painting. It’s something that is very important in terms of his sensibility and for mine. I know that when I’m dealing with filming nature again, which is something I have not done for a long while, I share a lot with Eric. He’s much more patient than I am. So sometimes when I work with Denis or Yorick Le Saux, I love to work fast, I don’t like to wait, and I’m mostly concerned with the energy of filmmaking, but I know that when I’m making a movie which also deals with life — with the mood, with the hour of the day, with catching the sensuality of light and landscapes — Eric will protect me from my impatience. He will have the authority to say, “No, we’re not shooting now. We’ll wait 15 minutes. We’ll wait 20 minutes. We do that shot tomorrow, because we need to shoot it at the right hour and to have the right light. And if we don’t have enough sun, we pick up and do something else.” He’s more reasonable than I am, so in that sense he helps me a lot when I’m making a movie like this.
How much do you consult with him beforehand in terms of the design of the film? I know that you’ve spoken of being someone who tries to improvise the aesthetic on set and likes the tension of making those choices in the physical space in which you’re shooting the film as opposed to predesigning so much stuff. Does that change from d.p. to d.p., though? Because I’ve worked very closely with my cinematographers, always, I suppose that it’s the relationship and how it evolves that kind of shapes the film. I had only a very dreamy, incomplete notion of what this film would look like. And of course, Eric [and I], we’ve known each other for 10 years. We’ve made many films together; they’re very different from each other. So he kind of knows how I function. He knows my instincts. In the case of this film, I didn’t want to go through whatever we went through before, like just looking at reproductions of paintings by painters we admire. He knows that I like more and more color, light. I don’t like dark — dark settings, dark pictures. I like overexposed pictures. It goes without saying when I’m with Eric. We discussed the screenplay briefly. It’s pretty obvious that I wanted to make a movie that was more colorful, but also a more gentle film I suppose, with something elegiac about it.
I told him just listen to the Incredible String Band. Just listen to neo-folk music. Think unplugged. Think about making a movie as light as possible dealing with very bad themes — dealing with death, with loss, with mourning — but with the lightest possible touch. Try to make all those emotions as light and delicate and graceful as possible. So that’s basically how we approached it.
Like a number of your films, including the thrillers like Boarding Gate, Summer Hours contains very long scenes, and very long sort of chamber-piece sequences. The first 25 minutes of the film is the last time the family is all together, and the next 25 minutes basically takes place on the day on which the three siblings all gather in the wake of the mother’s death; there are these big chunks of narrative followed by even larger gaps. That’s something that’s obviously built into the script, and structurally it’s something you seem to do often. What is it about that type of scene structure that you’re drawn to? Well, in the case of Summer Hours it was specifically a kind of four-act structure, and each captured one specific moment, with long lapses of time in between them. Ultimately that kind of structure is as much about what I say as about what I don’t say. The long lapses of time that exist between the sequences provide a structure that is all about taking a view of these people at different moments around one central event, which is the death of Hélène. So it was very clear from the start for me that I had this first act that was the last weekend in the house. The second act was after Hélène’s death, how they decide to sell the house. Then the third part was how the house is sold. One last part is how the kids say goodbye to the house. And so that was for me the arc. Specifically in Summer Hours, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible, have as few locations as possible, have more time to get into the characters. When I was doing Boarding Gate it was very different in the sense that it’s a movie that’s cut in two. The first part is more like a chamber piece that is kind of like generating energy that all of a sudden blows up in your face when the character gets to Hong Kong. Then all of a sudden it becomes the opposite. It had also to do with the fact that when I had my two characters together I wanted to go as far as I could into the texture of their relationship. It’s about giving myself time to accompany my characters within the story in order to get into the complexity, get into the nuances, get into beings.
When I’m making Summer Hours, which is a movie about a family and which is a collective film in many ways, I have to get into the tiny nuances of how each of the characters function. I must get the contradictions, the nuances, because I have to understand the reasons of each and every one of them, and I have to capture that.
The cast contains a number of people who you’ve worked with before, including Charles Berling, but it also has people you haven’t directed before, such as Juliette Binoche. Does the duration of your relationship with your actors affect the way you direct them? Well, yes, it does. In the case of Summer Hours, the connection between this film and Les destinées sentimentales was very important also in terms of the cast, really, because the fact that I had already worked with them, that they knew each other, that they had already functioned together and had some background to my story and methods. There was continuously something that was working for them from the beginning because of their shared past. Ultimately the same goes for the teenagers, because Emile Berling, he was around when we were shooting. He was a child running around the set when we were shooting Les destinées 10 years ago. So he’s also aware of that story. The same for Alice, because Alice de Lencquesaing — she plays Sylvie — she is the daughter of Caroline Champetier, the famous cameraman, and of Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, who was one of the characters also in Les destinées sentimentales. So she was also with us as a child when we were making that film. So it pretty much makes sense.
Juliette Binoche is a different story, because Juliette I’ve known forever. I’ve known her since 1984, because I wrote with André Téchiné Rendez-vous, which is really what made her a movie star. The film was in Cannes, André got the Best Director prize, and the film was a big hit. For me it was also my big break as a screenwriter. It’s the movie that helped me so much get my first feature happening. So we’ve known each other when we were just two kids, on that film and ever since we’ve wanted to work together. We kept on bumping into each other, saying, “We should be working together. We should get a film together.” In this case, because she was involved on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s project, Flight of the Red Balloon, which was also initially part of the Musée d’Orsay project, it made quite a bit of sense.
She’s blonde in both films. It’s a bit of a connection between these two films, and at last we could work together! I told her,“It’s a small part. The film I’m making is about a family. There’s no main part per se but, you know, it’s an ensemble piece,” and she said, “Yeah, great. No problem. I’ll do it.” She made it happen in many ways, the finances of the film and so on. Her participation was paramount.