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Film Essays

Re-presenting the Past: Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (2008)

Olivier Assayas’ 2008 film Summer Hours opens with a scene of children playing in a yard. We have not been introduced to these children or the setting yet and the action is shot in a handheld manner creating an organic and intimate feeling. If it were not for the opening credits that preceded this scene we could assume this to be a home movie of sorts. Shortly after this we are introduced to the children’s elders and the narrative begins to develop. It is grandmother Helene’s (Edith Scob) birthday. Assayas chooses to begin the film with the birthday celebration of the character whose death will be the catalyst for all other events in the film. It sets up  the integral theme of the film: family history.

This is not the first time Assayas has used a juxtaposition of past and present within a narrative. In this film, the past is embodied by Helene and when she dies the past is manifested through the house and belongings she leaves behind. Assays did something similar with his 1996 film Irma Vep which utilizes a classic film – Les Vampires (1915) – as a catalyst. In both films, the past is evoked in artwork and the present is personified by someone who wants to hold on to it and preserve it for future generations. In Summer Hours, the art is held in high regard because of the emblematic nature of memory. These historical pieces of art were the prized possessions – and in some cases, creations – of an immediate family member. By preserving them they are preserving the memory of that person and, in turn, the family itself. In Irma Vep, the director of the film-within-a-film remake of Les Vampires, wants to honor the material he is working with by staying as faithful as possible. In both cases, history is dictating – or at least strongly influencing – the actions of those in the present.

Both Summer Hours and Irma Vep use handheld cinematography, a signature of Assayas’s films. In Summer Hours he uses it more sparingly, allowing it to resonate powerfully when used. For instance, as mentioned before, the film opens with handheld shots of the children playing. The first twenty minutes the film is confined to Helene’s house and is shot in this personal, handheld style. After this act of the film concludes, Summer Hours switches to traditional static and tracking shots. This makes the scenes and sequences that are not explicitly connected to Helene (and through her the concept of ‘family history’) sterile and uncomfortable. The final reunion of the family at Helene’s house feels that much more personal and once the film returns to the intimate photography of the first act, it feels as if we have come home again.

It is worth noting that Assayas is a French filmmaker and Summer Hours is subsequently a French film. He also happens to be the son of great French filmmaker Jacques Remy and has worked within the French film industry since the mid-1980s, including writing for prestigious French cinema journal Cahiers Du Cinema. This creates many parallels within his work to other French cinema, particularly French New Wave. A Godardian energy comes through films like the aforementioned Irma Vep and Demonlover (2002). However, he also draws comparisons to more classical French filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, whose film The Rules of the Game (1939) seems to have greatly inspired Summer Hours, both in structure and content.

This placement of Assayas within French cinema allows for more understanding of the past/present relationship within his films. Not only does it factor into his narratives, but it affects how he makes his films as well. Many sections of Irma Vep are shot in black and white, perhaps as a tribute to Les Vampires, but comparisons can also be drawn to the black and white photography of many French New Wave cinema. His use of handheld photography is also something that was used quite frequently by New Wave filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard. One would think that Assayas would have felt right at home in that era of filmmaking, going so far as to cast Jean-Pierre Leaud (Antoine Doinel) – himself a staple of the New Wave— to play the fictional filmmaker in Irma Vep.

Towards the end of Summer Hours, after the children have sold their mother’s art collection, there is a scene of a tour at a museum showcasing the work. The first piece of hers that we see is a destroyed sculpture we are introduced to early in the film, this time in stages of repair. Shortly after this, we see a tour guide escorting visitors to Helene’s desk, which is now on display. At this moment we see a young man answer his cell phone and walk away from the group towards the camera. After finishing his phone call, he hurries past the desk and rejoins the group, paying no attention to the desk at all. This is at once humbling and saddening. Destroyed art can be repaired and it can be put on display, but memories cannot be. The moments in the film that involved the destroyed statue utilized it to represent what had happened in the past. It had been broken and should have remained in the same plastic bag Helene had preserved it in, serving as physical representation of the past. The same can be said for Helene’s desk. What was once covered in and filled with her belongings now sits lifeless on display in a museum. These shots in the museum are neither intimate nor personal but instead cold and sterile.

The film ends back at Helene’s house, with her grandchildren having a party. This is the first example of popular music in the film and is the most explicit convergence of past and present. The camera is allowed to be intimate again, even though the entire family is not there. It is the house that is the manifestation of their family history, no matter who may be there or what has been removed. The house will always come alive through their memories.

Justin LaLiberty   3/08/11

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