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Summer Hours: A family feud in France? Shrug, elegantly, and bear it

4 out of 4 stars


Summer Hours

  • Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
  • Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob and Kyle Eastwood
  • Classification: 14A

North Americans celebrate summer holidays in theory, singing songs and watching movies about getting away, often without ever taking a real vacation. The French actually retreat to the country to sun their souls. Summer Hours begins in celebration of France's August pilgrimage. Three adult children return to their leafy ancestral estate. A string quartet murmurs off screen. The siblings sip cognac from 19th-century glassware (in the afternoon!), while their own children tumble laughing in nearby woods.

They're in heaven. We're on cloud nine.

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Then: trouble. The mother (Edith Scob) takes her eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), aside, instructing him on who gets what when she dies. Frédéric hopes to keep the estate, with all its fabulous art treasures, for the grandchildren.

But there's a problem - only his clan resides in France. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) divides her time between Japan and her New York boyfriend. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and his bunch, meanwhile, are off to China to work for Puma shoes.

Nobody has enough money to maintain the estate. Nerves tighten. After the mother dies, the family's health is suddenly as fragile as the figurines in their antique Viennese armoire. "The house doesn't mean very much to me any more - France either," Adrienne announces. More ominous perhaps: Writer-director Olivier Assayas ( Demonlover ) places a Diet Coke can next to Adrienne during a family discussion.

Could France, O Glorious France, be ruined by soft drinks and sneakers? Anyone who took The Cherry Orchard in Grade 12 English knows what happens next. In Chekov's play, representatives of a harsh new order - real-estate developers - arrive at a 19th-century Russian manor. The last scene has landowners squabbling while axes ring offstage, reducing the family's beloved cherry orchard to kindling.

And so it is in Summer Hours . With the matriarch gone, the grandkids welcome pot-smoking friends to a party at the summer house. Children of many colours play the newest global sport - basketball. The sound of ball slapping stone is amplified to simulate axe chopping wood.

Don't presume for a second, however, that Summer Hours is a lament for a once illustrious regime. There is no sentimental call here for an orderly, distant past - some mythical, more civilized (more French!) France. Acting on Chekhov's belief that artists should be as objective as chemists, filmmaker Assayas follows his characters without prejudice. Binoche's Adrienne, the Diet Coke drinker who sports American casualwear, is not a heretic. She's a conflicted woman who seems alarmed that she's falling away from France and her family.

Nor is her American boyfriend the brute Yankee interloper princesses usually get stuck with in high-toned European drama. (Remember Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited ?) Adrienne's boyfriend is played by Clint's boy, Kyle Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is a beloved film icon in France. Indeed, one could say that giving a female character an Eastwood for a lover is the highest award a French filmmaker can bestow upon an actress.

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None of the adult children behave badly in Summer Hour s. It is the situation that is impossible. The film benefits enormously from the work of the leads, whose performances are expertly measured - alternately offhand, tactful and passionate. Binoche, whose moods change as often as maritime weather, is particularly compelling.

Still, it is filmmaker Assayas who is the star here. France's most important contemporary director has created a work of almost magisterial calm. Where a Hollywood film of a family feuding over a fabulous estate would surely end with a slapped face and an infantry charge of lawyers, Assayas's work concludes with a smile and a shrug. Life goes on. What else can it do?

Special to The Globe and Mail

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