unbearable lightness of being: (l-r) Renier, Binoche
and Berling in Summer Hours.
Ties That Don’t Bind
by Olivier Assayas
understand the title of this luminous portrait of a family
in decline in a couple of ways. Taking the poetic angle, “summer
hours” are those precious, lazy, ephemeral moments when friends
and family, at leisure, revel in each other’s company. And
the haunting beauty of the opening of Olivier Assayas’ visually
sumptuous film can lead you in this direction. Or you can
take the title literally: The first moments in Summer Hours
are the last the story’s family will spend together as a family—except,
of course, for funerals.
begins with a 75th birthday celebration for Hélène (Edith
Scob). The family have gathered for the occasion: sons Frédéric
(Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and their assorted
wives, children and dogs, and daughter Adrienne (Juliette
Binoche). We get a sly tour of the terrain, as the camera
follows the children as they play a variant of hide-and-seek.
We get an introduction to the family, and their story. Mother
has turned the house into a shrine to her late uncle, an artist
of some fame and regard. Hélène has dedicated her life to
the uncle’s legacy; father is dead, and goes unremembered.
We see the relationship between practical Hélène and dreamy
son Frédéric, as she tries to prepare him for her eventual
death—and the inevitable breaking up and selling off of the
country estate and its quite valuable contents. We see the
prickly relationship between Hélène and Adrienne, an antagonism
that’s verbal and visual. They argue about the merits of keeping
a silver tea service. Adrienne’s dyed-blonde hairdo seems
like an insolent affront to her mother’s impeccably coiffed
the guests all disappear, leaving Hélène alone with her housekeeper—and
argument about the tea service pays off in a fascinating character
revelation later in the film. So, for that matter, do many
seemingly offhand moments in this offhandedly devastating
film. (There’s some wonderful business with a vase no one
thinks is worth anything.) After Hélène dies, Frédéric assumes
that his brother and sister will want to keep the summer home.
He assumes incorrectly. After all, we already know that one
sibling lives in New York, the other in Shanghai.
is saying something bigger about the dissolution of family
in this late-capitalist world of commerce across borders,
but he’s not obnoxious about it. Summer Hours is a
big film made up of small, telling moments.
has the least screen time of the leads, but because Adrienne
has the most volatile personality she makes the most vivid
impression. (Her delight in the airing of the family’s dirty
laundry is delicious—and a little too satisfying, for both
Adrienne and the audience.) Scob, appropriately, dominates
the opening scenes, but Berling’s Frédéric is the film’s soul.
His shock that his siblings don’t share his sense of family
is moving; his alienation when, late in the film, he sees
some of his mother’s objects on display in a museum, is bracing.
Hours is stately, episodic and ultimately moving, and
yet it never loses a sense of summer’s essential lightness.
Comedy of Convenience
by Anne Fletcher
Bullock does for an ultra-slim, pencil-skirted suit and 4-inch
heels what Charlie Chaplin did for an old shoe. In The
Proposal, Bullock works her talent for physical comedy
with very funny results, as when her character, an uptight
über-publishing executive named Margaret, is forced to get
down on, and then back up off of, her knees on a city street,
wearing said very chic ensemble. Folding her sculpted body
like a jackknife, she makes the first step, but in the latter
movement, stumbles like a newborn foal trying out its gams.
Later, she wobbily handles a pebbled drive and dockside ladder
wearing similarly towering heels—this is my kind of woman,
somebody who won’t let a thing like common sense stand in
the way of her Jimmy Choos.
Proposal begins, Margaret is shown multi-multitasking
before descending upon an office which, on first sight of
her, helpfully IMs all that “the witch is here.” Indeed, her
mere shadow is enough to set minions to new levels of productivity;
the film does a good job here, if nowhere else, in displaying
that sort of office mentality. Margaret’s resourceful assistant,
Drew (Ryan Reynolds) hasn’t had a vacation in three years,
because, presumably, Margaret’s got him chained to the grindstone.
He has aspirations to become an editor, though his suggestions
are unwanted. But when an immigration snafu (she’s Canadian,
with an expired visa) means imminent deportation, Margaret
literally presses Drew into service, announcing to the stunned
office their engagement. Not so amazed is a suspicious immigration
officer (Denis O’Hare). The game is on.
then shifts to Alaska, where Drew’s family, a Kennedy-esque
dynasty, holds court in a palatial, waterside estate. Margaret’s
appreciation of Drew increases tremendously, a sour note in
a character otherwise not particularly venal, just verbally
lethal. Here’s where the bickering couple are supposed to
get to know each other in time for their immigration interrogation,
and here’s where we’re supposed to see signs of the warring
duo warming up, however reluctantly, to each other. Unfortunately,
here is where the movie begins to show its clichés, choosing
to insert Bullock into uncomfortable situations like a really
gross male strip tease in a rustic bar, or having Margaret
running naked into an equally buff Drew. A bit about a dog
and an eagle, and a running gag about a blanket dubbed “the
baby maker,” are side-splittingly funny, but too much is made
of Drew’s 90-year old granny’s (Betty White) penchant for
salty talk. An old girlfriend is thrown in for tension, to
and Reynolds have great chemistry, and display quick wit and
good humor in delivering the movie’s many funny exchanges.
That said, the oh-so-expected finale feels slightly off. While
I love the couple’s sparring, the inevitable embrace makes
Margaret seem smaller, more off-kilter than when she was struggling
to get off that pavement. When you think about it, almost
all of Bullock’s male leads have been sort of B-movie types,
this generation’s John Payne or Patric Knowles. Reynolds is
a little more impressive than, say, Julian MacMahon or, dare
I say it, Keanu Reeves, to name two of her most recent co-stars,
but he still doesn’t seem in the same league as Bullock, who
projects major confidence and intelligence. The intellectual
tension between Margaret and Drew had a lot more sizzle and
humor potential than newly-in-love Margaret and Drew.