Summer Hours (2008), Olivier Assayas’ masterpiece of clever structuring, is about objects, space, planning, and death. In short, it’s the closest I ever saw a movie to adapting Henry James’ The Spoils of Poynton (1897). What Assayas has thrown into the mix – and what James couldn’t even dream of – is globalization. It becomes the main destructive force operating upon a family, whose various branches end up on different continents in search of opportunities, so that there’s no need to keep the family house after the mother’s death.
The fate of the house is the main concern of everyone in Summer Hours, and so is the fate of beautiful objects gathered within its walls over the years. Since Eric Rohmer’s masterful The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993), I haven’t seen a movie that would make discussions about tax rates and selling options as human and as suspenseful. Assayas is preoccupied with property and the role of commodity in constructing one’s own sense of self – and that’s why we keep listening. At the end of the day, the market value of an object can go unnoticed, as long as it remains alive and in use.
The final sequence is a stunning piece of filmmaking. The wandering steadicam becomes almost a ghostly presence in its own right (think Elephant ). As a group of youngsters – all friends of the dead woman’s granddaughter – is about to have “one last party” in the sold house, a sudden blast of rap music they play literally packs a punch to your gut. But it’s not The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Assayas is almost happy to see this beautiful space, “out of another era”, as it was called earlier in the dialogue – brought back to life by youth. It’s inhabited again, even if no one gives a damn about its furniture or paintings. What Assayas managed to do in this extraordinary coda, is to fuse together sacrilege and resurrection. The granddaughter is about to have a part of her heritage amputated forever, like a healthy limb; but she at least used that limb, and she will know she misses it.
Who knows, maybe one day she will build a house of her own and a part of her that was taken away by money will grow to be even more beautiful.