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The unbearable lightness of being: (l-r) Renier, Binoche and Berling in Summer Hours.

The Ties That Don’t Bind

By Shawn Stone

Summer Hours

Directed by Olivier Assayas

You can 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.

The film 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 gray hair.

Soon, the guests all disappear, leaving Hélène alone with her housekeeper—and her memories.

That 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.

Assayas 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.

Binoche 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.

Summer Hours is stately, episodic and ultimately moving, and yet it never loses a sense of summer’s essential lightness. Nicely done.

A Comedy of Convenience

The Proposal

Directed by Anne Fletcher

Sandra 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.

As The 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.

The action 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 no avail.

Bullock 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.

—Laura Leon

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