I don’t see many movies while they’re in distribution, but Summer Hours seemed like it would make a worthy exception. The film is about three siblings whose mother dies, leaving them to divide her estate, consisting of an old chateau and a number of works of art, including two paintings by Corot and two panels by Odilon Redon. It’s difficult to assess a film whose moral stance I understand and accept so whole-heartedly, but as a film it skirts perilously close to failure. Nonetheless, there are a few well composed shots, and one of real beauty when the protagonist has learned that his siblings want to sell off the estate and he retires to a bedroom, overcome by his disappointment. The shot is closed effectively by the film’s first fade-to-black, though they suddenly multiply near the film’s end, as if the director couldn’t figure out how to tie the final scenes together.
In this frame the film achieves some real visual beauty, even if it’s composed a bit academically:
There are several indicators throughout the film that the director is aware of the imperative to avoid sentimentality in a film about a dying mother and selling off old and cherished objects. One of the siblings pointedly distinguishes the sentimental value and the “real” value — that is, the exchange value — of various artifacts. The sibling who wants to try to keep the estate intact seems unable to articulate why his desire isn’t mere sentiment, and this inarticulacy is the heart of the film.
Despite this admirable understanding, the director occasionally sabotages his own project by giving in to sentimentality. The early scenes of the film are colored by a moral sepia-tone, and even the innocence of the camera is compromised by close shots of hands squeezed tight with love, long shots of the family at table, close-ups of affectionate sibling grimaces, and the whole nauseating Kodak mess. Even these early scenes don’t go entirely off the rails thanks to some understated acting and scrupulously realistic settings, and the film improves rapidly once it has painted this kitschy portrait of togetherness.
My chief complaint is that the score, though heard with blessed infrequency, is a mawkish jangle of strings and harp meant only to signify that the audience should be feeling appropriately wistful. It indicates a lack of confidence in the integrity of the scenes where it is heard. The film would be significantly improved by its complete elision.
Despite all these complaints, Summer Hours will certainly be one of the better reels to grace American screens this year, and it gestures towards themes and ideas relevant to anyone interested in the relation of personal value, exchange value, and beautiful objects.