Real lasting beauty is rare in this world. Beauty with a foundation, with potential for lasting traditions for generations to come is rare. When you find those things, when you’re lucky enough to be born into a connection with those things, don’t let it go.
I kept saying that as I watched “Summer Hours,” a very moving, poignant film about family, loss and the complexity of modern life. Don’t let go!! That house!! It’s wonderful, old, thoroughly lived in, big, cumbersome and surrounded by a great lawn with huge, tall trees and room enough for children to run free and laugh and develop memories that will last their entire lives. Don’t let it go.
But life today is so complicated. Family gatherings, even in summer, are complicated and hard to work out.
Jérémie (played by Jérémie Renier) has been living in China and travels from there to France for his mother’s 75th birthday party. His sister, Adrienne (played by Juliette Binoche), travels from New York to renew familial ties and join the celebration. The eldest, Frédéric (played by Charles Berling), is the only sibling still living in France, and he soon is pulled aside by his mother, Hélène, to talk about her estate. He doesn’t want to even think about her passing away, which rang true to me, having experienced the loss of both parents. But she knows she doesn’t have much time, and she hopes against hope that she can pass on legacies visual, concrete and emotional.
The house is very special in many ways. Hélène (played by Edith Scob) is the protector of the legacy of her uncle, a famous painter. The house was once his, and it’s filled with various collectibles from his life and times, but few of his paintings. They are elsewhere. Which brings in another sense of loss, though quietly, hovering in the background. She works with curators on his retrospectives, and publishers when they seek to make books about his art. Hélène is naturally devoted to her uncle’s memory, but is so elegant about it, so self-assured, so poised, one can’t quite guess the secrets that may be at the heart of her loyalty and ultimate resignation.
And she is resigned. Frédéric, an economist, can’t imagine that his brother and sister would want to get rid of the house. He takes it on faith and says so to his mother that this house will always be there for the kids to enjoy and their kids. But after the passing of their mother, it quickly becomes apparent that the eldest son was wrong. The distance between families is too great. The cost of travel too high to warrant preserving a place with so many memories. They decide to sell. Adrienne, much like her mother, has a natural appreciation for objets d’art that elude her siblings, and watches over the dispensation of those that appear valuable enough for the museums. Frédéric can’t bear the idea of parting with two Corot’s, which may bring him a sense of connection to France’s great past, but must be sold despite that. The youngest son, Jérémie, is a businessman who works for Puma, and shows no sign of any attachment to the house or the objects within. He seems the most eager to sell and the least conflicted about moving on.
The housekeeper must leave too and is a symbol of tireless devotion to something larger than herself, something that is dying beyond her former employer. She seems more a part of the house and the family than Hélène’s own children in a sense, but less than her grandchildren. The balance between them gives life to the grounds and wraps the house up in the warmth of generations. For a moment. A final party there, thrown by the eldest granddaughter, is yet another wistful reminder of the transient. It is sadder still when there seemed no strong reason to cast aside those roots. Choosing rootlessness when one doesn’t have to is puzzling from the outside looking in.