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Summer Hours (2008) — On the Meanings of Stuff

April 16, 2015

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece in which I commented upon the extent to which our impressions of films are coloured by a lifetime’s worth of experiences. While all critical responses may be anchored in a shared humanity, there is no such thing as a clean or dispassionate read and what you think of a text is likely to be as much a product of your bullshit as it is of the inherent qualities of the text itself.

I wrote that piece and immediately sat down to watch Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, a film that so closely matches my own personal experiences that it is at times quite uncanny.

A number of years ago, my mother died leaving quite a complicated estate. While I had been serving as my mother’s carer for a number of years, her death put me in a situation where I was legally involved with my much older half-siblings. While these siblings had always been a presence in my life, they had all left home by the time I was about 10 and their subsequent visits became increasingly sporadic and tense as my mother’s emotional stability declined. By the time I was legally manacled to them by my mother’s estate, I was effectively a complete stranger who had been parachuted into their existing group dynamic. While the stress of the situation meant that we all found a way to more-or-less cooperate, it rapidly became quite clear that my siblings and I had very different attitudes towards my mother’s possessions.

As someone who had been in the firing line of my mother’s emotional instability for my entire life, I viewed my mother’s things as a burden in need of lifting… I wanted to be rid of the stuff because I wanted to be rid of my mother and every item that went out the door brought a tangible sense of relief. Though my siblings expressed a number of different attitudes towards my mother’s stuff, one prevailing attitude seemed to be that the stuff was almost sacred in that it allowed one of my siblings in particular to reconnect with his (seemingly far more pleasant) childhood without the person my mother became getting in the way and spoiling his feelings of nostalgia. To this day, I could not tell you which of these two attitudes was the more ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ but we not only saw the objects in very different lights, we were also using them as props in what turned out to be very different psychodramas, which is precisely the theme of Summer Hours.

 

 

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The film opens on one of those wonderfully warm and cosmopolitan family gatherings that only ever seem to happen in French films. A large gang of cousins run around the sprawling and densely-wooded grounds of a great house while their parents sit at a long, sun-drenched table where they pay enthusiastic court to the family matriarch on the day of her seventy-fifth birthday. Played with real inner fire by the wonderful Edith Scob, the matriarch is obviously pleased to see her children and grandchildren but her real passion lies in the huge collection of antiques and artworks she has maintained since the death of her uncle, a great artist. Before long, she is grabbing the arm of her eldest son and dragging him off to her office in order to walk him through the details of the collection for the umpteenth time. Sensing that this conversation is also a conversation about what will happen when his mother dies, the son is reticent to engage but his mother keeps on lecturing him about what is valuable and what isn’t despite her claim to be uninterested in what happens to the objects once she is dead… after all, she won’t be able to benefit from them and she’s sure that the children have their own lives to lead anyway. Needless to say, these protestations of indifference are nothing than a sham as the older woman desperately wants her children to maintain both the house and the collection in much the same way that she did. The reason she chooses the eldest son as executor of the estate is because he is the one who seems most invested in keeping everything as it is.

 

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The matriarch soon dies, forcing the three grown-up children to come together in order to make decisions about both the house and the collection. Beautifully drawn, the three children embody very different attitudes towards the collection and the ‘vote’ on what happens next carries a surprising amount of tension:

Played by Charles Berling, Frederic is an economist who does not believe in economics and a public intellectual who sees no point in engaging with the public. Though sympathetic, Frederic is someone who seems perpetually absent… when his daughter is arrested for shoplifting, he expresses not only complete surprise at the details of her private life but also an odd refusal to actually engage in the act of parenting. He does not yell at his daughter for stealing, using drugs, or having sex but he chooses to shout at her for slamming the door on the way up to her bedroom. This lack of engagement with his own family means that he simply assumes not only that everyone will be interested in maintaining the collection but also that everyone will continue returning to the house every summer in perpetuity. When his mother’s aged housekeeper expresses a reluctant wish to stay on and look after the house, he is visibly relieved as he seems to value the idea that both the collection and the house will remain where they are despite the fact that he has little appreciation for art or architecture.

Played by Jeremie Renier, the youngest brother Jeremie is similar to his older brother in so far as he has no interest in either antiques or art. Employed by a trainer company, he lives in China and waxes lyrical about a future in which cheap products are mass produced in huge factories. For him, the house and collection are nothing more than a cash value… a means of not only buying a house in Beijing but also buying a holiday cottage in Bali that would allow him to sever all ties with France.

In many ways the most intriguing of the three siblings is Juliette Binoche’s Adrienne. Unlike the two boys, Adrienne has followed in her great-uncle’s footsteps by becoming a designer. Much like Jeremie, she works in South East Asia and helps to produce objects that will be mass-produced and cheaply sold but her ability to work as a designer is grounded in a profound understanding of the collection. In one beautifully-delivered monologue, Binoche talks about how her character dreams of the objects in the house and how she copied details from them as part of her studies in design.

 

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The scene in which the different siblings express their desires is wonderfully realised and imbued with considerable tension but Assayas refuses to dwell on either the tensions between the characters or the reasons those tensions exist in the first place. There are no extended arguments or enduring resentment, just a realisation that the family cannot keep either the house or the collection and that this means learning to relate to those objects in an entirely new way.

The family meet with a lawyer who warns them that selling the house and collection will result in considerable death duties. However, the French authorities evidently allow the owners of large collections to get out of paying inheritance tax by gifting valuable objects directly to the state. This means that while the children may be forced to view the stuff as nothing more than a source of money, the museums and tax assessors wind up arguing over whether these are objects of real cultural significance or simply a means of getting out of paying one’s taxes.

 

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Once the house sells, Frederic’s daughter decides to throw one last party in the house meaning that we are given the chance to see the house transformed from a repository of stuff to a place in which teenagers dance, snog, play football and eat. The film ends with Frederic’s daughter giving a lovely speech about how she had hoped to bring her own children to the house, a speech that hints at a tapestry of meaning far broader than those of the three children and their mother. Summer Hours is a refreshingly unsentimental film in so far as it recognises that objects have no inherent worth, but it is also humane in so far as it views objects as these repositories of psychological potential, things that can serve as props in a potentially infinite number of personal psychodramas. As Frederic’s wife points out when they visit the objects in the museum, giving the objects to the state did not rob them of their meaning, it just made it possible for everyone to see the objects and make of them what they will. We often talk of ownership in terms of who has control over an object and who gets to determine its fate but Summer Hours hints at a deeper sense of meaning, meaning as a form of authorial control granting the object’s ‘owner’ power to determine which psychodramas are supported and which are not.

Not long before my mother died, I undertook a spot of pre-emptive de-cluttering that went on the inspire one of my favourite essays. In the essay, I argue that consumerism took off because our sense of self is so impossibly fragile that we need objects to serve as a form of philosophical currency:

One of the problems with our sense of self is its abstractness.  Like nailing jelly to the walls or herding cats, our selves slip through our fingers, remaining frustratingly illusive and protean.  Just because you have a firm grasp of who you are at one moment doesn’t mean that you will not later discover yourself doing something strange, or having to re-assess your identity in the wake of some tragic event.  Consumerism is a process of making that which is abstract into something concrete, something that you can touch.  You may not have a firm grasp of who you really are, but you know for damn sure that you have an entirely respectable collection of science fiction novels!

The character of Frederic is a fascinating example of this process at work as while he is a father, an economist and a public intellectual, his engagement with these social roles is one of absence rather than engagement: He is the economist who does not believe in economics, the public intellectual who does not believe in the public and the father who does not believe in playing the role of the father. Defined in opposition to all of the major institutions in his life, Frederic grounds himself in the objects contained within his mother’s home. When his siblings decide to get rid of those objects, they are not only voting to strip Frederic of something that he values, but also undermining his very sense of self.

The scene in the museum captures a really fascinating element of consumerist psychology as while there shouldn’t be any reason why Frederic could not maintain a relationship with the objects once they were in the museum, his reactions suggest that opening those objects up to other people’s psychological needs devalues not only the objects but also his dependence upon them. Watching Summer Hours, I was reminded of the people who regularly claim that their childhoods are destroyed whenever the owners of an intellectual property decide to make changes to it. The question this poses is why someone would make the choice to invest elements of their self in something over which they have no control: Why invest in Star Wars rather than the stuff of your life? Why invest in the objects in your mother’s house rather than in elements that you control such as you career as an economist or your actions as a father? Is it perhaps because one’s career and role as a parent are equally unstable and subject to external intervention? Consumerism is not just a question of objects but of cultural systems that weave systems of meaning around vulgar consumer objects. The real tragedy of consumerism is not that we are tricked into assembling ourselves from things that cost money, it is that we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that meanings assigned by hype, marketing and market value are somehow more ‘real’ than the meanings we construct for ourselves from our own actions and relationships.

 

5 Comments
  1. Brendan permalink
    May 5, 2015 1:26 pm

    Excellent piece. As with most of Assayas’ films, on my first (and only) viewing, I was more struck by structure, aesthetics, and mise-en-scène than themes & politics (except for Carlos, he tends to disguise these in plain sight), so I’ll have to watch it again with your essay in mind.

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  2. May 7, 2015 10:39 am

    Hi Brendan, thanks :-)

    I thought Carlos was more interested in inter-personal stuff than actual politics. Just as Something in the Air is more of a coming-of-age story than an actual meditation upon the politics of ’68.

    I can see why you’d mostly latch onto the structure and style though, he’s a very cold director whose attempts at engaging with themes often come across as detached and rather forced.

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  3. Brendan permalink
    June 16, 2015 7:04 pm

    Hey there. Reading Assayas’ short memoir “A Post-May Adolescence”, and I must recommend it to you. It’s not that well-written, and he has nothing new to say about the period, but for the bits of early biography to his method of bypassing Debordian anti-art theories via the collective work that takes place on a film set, it’s really vital reading for anyone who appreciates his films.

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  4. June 16, 2015 9:46 pm

    Hi Brendan :-). Thanks for the tip… Will seek that out.

    Like

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