When I walked from the 1369 in Central Square to the Brattle on a gorgeous spring Sunday afternoon [the first of the year] last month, it felt like a homecoming. Aptly enough, as it turned out, Summer Hours was the first film at this year's IFFB I saw at the Brattle, and I ran into people I knew, yes. But there was also the rush of memories of all the films I've seen there since I first started going in college and also memories rooted in the building itself: the familiar seat in the first row of the balcony, the bullet-shaped trash cans I ordered, the kinetic memory of how to move through its spaces in the dark, and the residue of the many daytime hours I spent alone in its dusty corners the year I was the operations manager, my office tucked behind the screen next to the projection booth that houses the rear projectors. And Assayas's was very much the type of film I was frequently fortunate to see there--warm, enveloping, spilling me physically out the side door into the alley at its end while my brain, exhilarated, could not quite wrest itself free from the world of the film.
Summer Hours has been open for a week in New York and L.A., and enters the secondary markets--including Boston--tomorrow, so it seemed as good a time as any to try and shake off my writer's funk and get off the schnide. The critical response has been fairly rapturous, and any number of reviews will tell you about the plot--essentially, the dispensation of a beloved country home and its valuable effects by three adult children after the matriarch dies--and its thematic ramifications--globalization, patrimony, whither France, etc. What stuck with me was the feeling of the final scene, borne out by something Assayas said in an interview at Reverse Shot:
The film itself begins with a treasure hunt, undertaken by a gang of tumbling cousins [if one wants to be portentous, the next generation--I don't] on what will be their last visit as a family to their grandmother Hélène's home. A pragmatist, she explains to her son Frédéric how to dispense with the house and its artworks after her death, chiding his protestations that his children will return with the wry observation, "It's their childhoods they love. But when they're adults they'll have better to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another era."
She's right and she's wrong. Moreover, the same could be said of Assayas's own career. In many ways the treasure hunt at the beginning ends when the movie does, treasure always being the last place you look. Frédéric's daughter Sylvie and her friends invade the now empty house for one last party before its sale is complete. The camera follows the girl and her copines through the echoing rooms teeming with teens, it, and her, and us the only ones able to see what is no longer there. Commandeering the sound system blasting the boys' Gallic rap, Sylvie instead puts on the Plasticines' "Loser" [see above] and launches into a giddy, Dionysian but self-conscious dance with two other girls. It's breathtaking.
When I recently described the scene to my friend Antonym, he responded, "Oh, Cold Water!" [Foolishly, I managed to miss it when the Brattle--see how this all ties in?--screened the entries from the French television series "Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge...," although I loved Travolta et moi.] Sure enough, thanks to the kind offices of YouTube and Rai Tre [grazie], I uncovered the 1994 Assayas revisiting his 1970s adolescence at a nighttime party in and around an abandoned house [see below].
So there's the echo of time there, too. Not just the duration and dimension any pop song brings to the essentially 2D experience of cinema, but the time that's elapsed between L'eau Froid and L'heure d'été. [and even between 1994 cinetrix and the current edition]. In that time, Assayas has moved into the sun. He's switched from the crackle of vinyl to digital music, yes, and from fueling a bonfire with abandoned furniture to placing it, reluctantly, out of reach, behind glass and velvet cordons in a museum. But the immediacy of the music hasn't changed, even if the quintessentially North American chic of Dylan knockin' on heaven's door and Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" giving way to Creedence Clearwater Revival has been replaced here by homegrown girl pop. What has changed is the location of the treasure. In Summer Hours the camera doesn't tilt up past dancing teens to follow the path of licking flames against the night sky. Instead it trails Sylvie as she leaves her friends behind and ventures into the pastoral with a boy she fancies. Narrating the invisible history of the French landscape that surrounds them, her face glistens with tears in the summer sun.