Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Summer Hours

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Though this approach is more intimate and nuanced this time around, French director Olivier Assayas (Boarding Gate, Demonlover) continues to examine the impact of globalization on our relationships and psyche. Far from the lurid-but-artful genre flicks he is known for, Assayas has created a Chekhovian drama that examines the emotional toll family possessions take on us after our parents die, and the age-old battle between sentimentality and monetary worth.

The plot couldn't be simpler: Three fortysomething siblings struggle to manage their mother's estate after her death. Though the family's home is storied and the inheritance filled with valuable art works (courtesy their great uncle, a celebrated artist), only eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), a French economist, longs to keep the estate and heirlooms in his family. This puts him at odds with his New York art dealer sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and younger businessman brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the manager of a sneaker factory in China. Both, expatriates, see little value in maintaining a past of which they are no longer part.

Too low-key to qualify as dramatic, Assayas directs his deceptively quiet family tale with a deft hand, allowing the siblings' conversations to naturally unfold and evolve, before gracefully fading out between encounters. Absence and loss tangibly hang in the air as he captures the literal and metaphorical end of childhood. In particular, Frédéric becomes a painful reminder that as the global influences of economics and culture reorder our lives, notions of identity, family and history become untethered. Frédéric is a stand-in for Assayas' heritage-minded concerns, contrasted against the pragmatic price-tag orientation of his sister and brother, who accept that money is the great equalizer.

Though the writing is sharp, it's the actors who ground Assayas' ambitious meditations, delivering performances that are astonishingly effortless and real. These are full-blooded, three-dimensional people, who convey complex emotions and motivations. You not only become convinced they are siblings, you may actually see a little bit of yourself in their decisions and reactions.

Touching and melancholy, Summer Hours confronts lofty notions of cultural disconnection, nostalgia and the dissolution of family bonds to international forces in a way that should emotionally resonate with audiences. Assayas understands that the increasing homogenization of our world through global economics does more than just liquidate the past and commodify the present — it exacts a profoundly personal cost.

Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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