As my three or so readers may have noticed, last week covered only films. In general, there tends to be a balance between music and movies because Netflix’s catalogue is endless and notable new music, or at the very least, music of the sort that I cover, tends to come out frequently enough. Often I’ll have a deep backlog of album streams to check through, but aside from a Fleetwood Mac cover album, there had been nothing since Blonds. And so I delved deep into Netflix, looking for anything that I’d missed and wanted to see, or simply anything that looked worthwhile. These are the unfortunate circumstances that brought me upon Summer Hours.
Summer Hours has beautiful cover art and that wonderful Criterion C stamped in the corner. Netflix’s description is this: “Sensing that death is close at hand, 75-year-old Hélène summons her three adult children to her home in the French countryside and tasks them with deciding the fate of her extraordinary art collection.” It almost sounds like something in the vein of My Dinner with Andre - a group of people sitting around, discussing death, art, their past, etc. It’s French too, which only means it must be more honest. This is, however, deeply far from the truth, aside from perhaps one brief scene. This is of course not a fault of the film, but I will get to those shortly.
What Summer Hours is actually about is much harder to define. It’s almost difficult to place where the near two hour film brought us. We meet Hélène, we watch the children sell the art, that’s all. There’s not quite a narrative to hold it together, simply a series of events. The film starts off with about a half hour of a lunch party for Hélène’s birthday. This scene primarily introduces us to Hélène and her son Frédéric. Hélène dies immediately following this sequence, but the film beyond that has very little to do with who she is or what her relationship was with her children. This makes the entire opening sequence wasteful. We are thoroughly introduced to a character with no great bearing on the story. In fact, we may get to know Hélène better than Frédéric’s two siblings.
Hélène somehow has a charming mansion filled with incredibly valuable art including paintings and furniture and sculptures. She even has a Degas, although one of the children broke it - whoops! It doesn’t matter too much though because they have so many other great pieces of art. All of these riches are haphazardly around the house. They love them! They’re just a brilliant piece of their simple and charming lives. She stores junk inside of some armoire that a museum really wants. Oh well, maybe she’ll let them have it eventually.
Now Frédéric and his two siblings have to decide what to do with everything. Frédéric wants to keep it so that all of their children can visit and enjoy the riches. The other members of the family point out that they no longer live in France and cannot use the home, and in the end, everyone agrees to sell it all off. I’m honestly not sure where the emotion comes in, but I think it’s something like this: the film is supposed to be about some sense of nostalgia, or a detachment from childhood, or memories, or whatever. After about a hour and a half, we are introduced to Frédéric’s daughter and the fact that apparently Frédéric is an absent father. This mimics a technique that can work wonderfully in short fiction - near the story’s end, an element or a character will be suddenly introduced that will deeply change our understanding of the main character. However, here, Frédéric hasn’t really been established. We assume that he has been a fine father the same way that we assume that he bathes even though we aren’t privy to watch it. Now, we’re told to believe that Frédéric is an absent father, but we’ve never seen this before now and certainly don’t care that his daughter is doing drugs. The final fifteen minutes of this film is the daughter throwing some blowout party for teenagers in the mansion right before it’s sold. Suddenly she’s sad about it. We watch this character that we don’t know at all disregard the house and then get kind of mopey, and it’s supposed to be some statement on childhood memories and nostalgia. How clever too, to do it with Frédéric’s daughter rather than Frédéric himself.
The deepest problem here is that these characters are all incredibly selfish, but the film refuses to recognize them as such. The film is shot like some dull romantic comedy. No one shuts up for a second. They are constantly talking about nothing in particular, not teaching us about their character or their interests. Their actions never tell us a thing, because they are simply incidental to whatever is coming out of their mouths. There are numerous meetings between the siblings in which they sit around all fancily as they passively try to get what they want. This makes for scenes with little tension, and it only reenforces their self centered attitudes. They can’t even open up to their siblings about what they want, they have to look a little dejected and whine a bit. More importantly, this family has invaluable works of art lying around their house, and no one seems to care about their greater meaning or value. They only care that they have them in some form, be it physically or monetarily. Some people donate these things to museums where they will be carefully kept up. No one considers this for a moment.
This film won a whole slew of awards, and so it’s possible that my disposition going into this film has affected things, though I strongly doubt that. Maybe it simply hasn’t aged well over four years. It’s hard to tell what this film is trying to do, and it comes no where close to anything that one might guess. It fails to give us characters, it fails to give us opinions, it fails to relate to anyone who doesn’t value money or nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Hopefully there will be more music this week.