Monday, March 07, 2011

l'heure d'été. (movie notes).

*contains plot spoilers.*

I watched l'heure d'été (Summer Hours, directed by Olivier Assayas, 2008) some weeks ago, and it left me with a kind of lingering wistfulness. I think it's one of those films which will stay with me for a long time, from the opening sequence to the last moments. In between it is a meditation on the nature of art, of death, of family, of memory. Of childhood and growing old, opening on a pack of children running through the gardens of a family summer home, following a treasure map up and down trees and along steep winding paths. The house's chatelaine is turning 75. She is determined to see that her late uncle's legacy of art passes on after her death. She takes her unwilling oldest son through her things, the Majorelle desk and cabinet, the Redon panel that is quietly mouldering on the studio wall, the shards of a Degas plaster cast that her sons broke when they were boys. Everything has a memory for her, and she is the last one left.

If it were an American film, this elderly lady would die dramatically clutching her chest as a glass of water spills to the floor and shatters, as shocked family and devoted housekeeper looked on, but thankfully it is a French film, and her death happens offscreen. We move slowly through the seasons, as the three grieving grown-up children sift through the estate and come to terms with what it really means to preserve a legacy. The art goes to the Musée d'Orsay; the house is sold. Two of the grown children live abroad, and to them the house is just a house. "Our children won't care," one of the sons says. They won't remember the stories that come with every piece; for them the Uncle Paul who collected it all is just another ancestor who died before they were born.

Near the end of the movie, Frédéric and his wife walk through the Musée d'Orsay to see his family's collection displayed in the gallery of decorative arts. There is a piercing sense of nostalgia, seeing these antique pieces, the Majorelle desk cleared of papers and the vases arranged on glass shelves under spotlights, instead of on the mantelpiece or filled with summer flowers. The Redon panels have been cleaned and restored; behind the scenes an expert is piecing together the shattered Degas into a dancing girl. But there is also a sense of loss; that human touch of everyday life and its accompanying clutter has been swept away in the climate-controlled rooms of a museum. The line between art and object has blurred; that inlaid mahogany desk was built to be used, to be cherished, in a home. The painting was meant to be hung in defiance of rot. A vase is meant to be filled with flowers, no?

At the end, a teenage girl holds her boyfriend's hand as they walk across the countryside where she and her cousins played at the beginning of the film. She tells him, her grandmother used to bring her here, used to tell her that she in turn would bring her own children here. "Now the house belongs to someone else." But she'll remember it, always. Do you have a place like that in your heart? I do.

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