TORONTO—When Summer Hours director Olivier Assayas had finished writing his screenplay about a dying woman’s fascination with the art objects she had collected throughout her life, he decided to take a unique approach. He felt that the audience wouldn’t care about Hélí¨ne or the family members who would be inheriting the pieces unless they cared about the art. So he took the job of assembling the pieces away from the set decorator and assigned himself to the task.
Watch the trailer for Summer Hours.
“I started with the art,” he said in a hotel room at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “The strange thing was that I started casting the objects before I cast the people. Even somehow when I was telling the story, I had the notion of the arc of every specific object before I had a clear notion of exactly what was the story I was telling, because those objects are what is left of Hélí¨ne. They are not beautiful or interesting in themselves; they are interesting because they are the last glow of someone whose glow we see early in the story. They are artifacts. I felt that it was important to show how the memory of someone fades through her belongings.”
After Hélí¨ne (Edith Scob) dies, her family is left with a house in the country and all the art that she has assembled over a lifetime. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is the only one of the three siblings who lives in France, and although he would prefer that the family find a way to keep the house and its contents, his brother and sister are less inclined. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and his family have moved to China, and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is living in the U.S. Neither feels that they would spend much time in the house and have little interest in the art that their mother has collected.
Assayas said that when he was writing the story, he could see that there were universal aspects to it, given that most families eventually have to deal with the deaths of parents and the things that are left behind. And in a modern world, where people often have to move away from home to find the right careers, there is no easy way to divide the properties and belongings of the people who have passed on.
“I think the forces at work within a family are the echoes of the forces that are at work in society,” he says. “When society is changing, families have to deal with that because we live in a world with very fast-changing values. It is something that has been true in North America for a long time, but in Europe it was not part of the culture to travel to find work until recently. Twenty years ago, it was unlikely you would move from Paris for a job opportunity in Frankfurt. It would never have happened. But now the problem is that every single French or European company has to be global or multinational to survive.
“Now when you get a job in a French company, they will say you can get a promotion if you move somewhere else. A person may weigh their options, but it’s probable that he or she will go where they are assigned because they will have a better job and better pay and it will be easier to sustain their family. It is as simple as that. It is just the way the world is changing. Families don’t function the same way, and the family home is not an asset anymore but a burden. So are the connections to history and the past that go with it.”
Although the movie has just found its way to North American theatres recently (and begins its Vancouver run on Friday [June 19]), it opened in Europe last year and was a hit. Assayas admits that although he knew it was one of the more accessible of the 16 films he has made thus far in his career, he says he wasn’t prepared for the response the film received outside of Paris.
“I think it is one of my most successful films in a very interesting way,” he says, “Usually they do well in the cities and okay in the smaller markets, but here it has been the other way around. It did well in Paris but it did equally well in other areas including small towns in France. There were young people but also elderly people who would come up to me and tell me they could relate to the story. I have younger friends who say, ”˜I brought my parents, and it was the first time I could take them to a movie where they were concerned with what was happening on the screen.’ So I think it touched something in people.”