There often seems to be duelling impulses in French culture. On one hand there's a drive to protect and preserve the country's unparalleled legacy of art, fashion, literature, architecture and cuisine from vulgar innovations and foreign contamination. The other artistic urge is to subvert, mock and disrupt the whole grand shebang.
French director Olivier Assayas, who first came to prominence in the late eighties, has somehow managed to embody both of those impulses. He was too young to take part in the May 1968 student protests in France, but was just about the right age for punk rock a decade later. His father, Jacques Remy, was one the screenwriters of the "cinema of quality" era of the 1950s that younger filmmakers such as François Truffaut denounced.
Though he worked with his father on some screenplays, Assayas followed the New Wave auteur model, serving as a critic for the famous Cahiers du cinema before making his own feature films, with a strong preference for the sometimes disorienting action and genre-busting ideas of Asian cinema. Over the past 20 years his films have ranged from startling, lurid films such as Irma Vep , Demonlover and Boarding Gate to genteel dramas such as the literary adaptation Les Destinées sentimentales .
His latest, Summer Hours , seems initially to be in the traditional camp. At a beautiful estate outside Paris, 75-year-old widow Hélène (Edith Scob) invites her three 40-something children to talk about the estate. She wants to make plans for the art of her uncle, a celebrated painter, a home for the glassware, the furniture. The oldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), is an economist working in Paris. He assumes that the home will remain as a focal point for the extended family. But his younger brother (Jérémie Renier) is working in China where he runs a sports shoe factory. Their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer who prefers living and working in New York and Japan.
Ultimately, there is no room for compromise, but be assured: Summer Hours isn't one of those films where a family reunion is a prequel to a family psycho-drama. This family remains admirably civilized through the whole painful process. "I detest the dramaturgical stereotype of the family that gathers together, where one of the adult kids uncovers some horrible crime perpetrated by one of the parents," says Assayas. "This is pure generational narcissism, this idea that we can speak the truth that our parents repressed, a particular kind of modern stupidity."
Instead, he says, Summer Hours is a "small, light film" about a big idea - that family bonds and French culture itself are dissolving under implacable global forces.
There's a reason why Summer Hours focuses on France's cultural legacy. In 2006, the director of the Musée d'Orsay thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the museum, famous for its Impressionist painting collection, by commissioning a series of short films by eminent modern directors. He approached Assayas and Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and they readily agreed.
Around that time, Assayas mother died, and he found himself dealing with the complex emotions that come with settling an estate and losing a parent. He decided he wanted to expand his story into a feature film, and learned that Hou had exactly the same thought (Hou's The Red Balloon became one of last year's most celebrated art films).
But during their productions, the rules changed. France's cultural ministry ruled that the museum had no business using public money to commission films, and the project was dropped. "So both Hsiao-hsien and I came back to the museum and asked if they'd still care to help us out in some way, and they couldn't have been more supportive," Assayas says. "I think they were so pissed off at having the productions taken away from them that they went out of their way to help us, as a sort of revenge."
The museum provided him with free research, use of its facilities, even permission to use some of its collection in his film. There's a moving moment when Frédéric gazes at the desk where his mother used to sit and write, now on display for school groups in the museum: "Strange to see it here," he says to his wife. "I don't know what to think."
Part of Summer Hours is an exploration of different kinds of value - personal, familial, cultural and monetary - in the context of globalization.
"I don't want to give the impression that I'm writing a morality tale," says Assayas. "I make movies to ask questions and when you're dealing with something as complex as our relationship to the past, we have to present it from different perspectives, to show the way good and bad are inextricably intertwined.
"But it's a fact of modern life that globalization isn't just something in the news; it's deep in the fabric of our lives. Nowadays the kids of bourgeois parents from France study international commerce in American and British universities. And as people move farther, they lose their connection with where they belong and why they belong there. When it's a contest between culture and jobs, culture just isn't very important. I think we will look back in nostalgia to the days when, if you hadn't read Camus or could at least quote him, you were considered a complete jerk."
There's a coda in the film, a teenagers' party at the same country estate where the film started. Rap music blasts out across fields where beautiful landscapes were once painted. Is Assayas suggesting the future of French culture is now being created by hip-hoppers in Brooklyn and Compton?
"Or more likely by French imitators," says Assayas, "but it amounts to the same thing."