“What I wanted to do was to capture the facade of the kaleidoscope of reality”
– Olivier Assayas, Berlin 2011
“In Time creative and destructive Proust discovers himself as an artist: “I understand the meaning of death, of love, and vocation, of the joys of the spirit and utility of pain.” Allusion has been made to his contempt for the literature that “describes,” for the realists and naturalists worshiping the offal of experience, prostrate before the epidermis and the swift epilepsy, and content to transcribe the surface, the façade, behind which the Idea is prisoner.”
-Samuel Beckett, Proust
Summer Hours revolves around the death, or rather the inheritance that is sole legacy of death of aging matron Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob) who has devoted her entire life to carrying the torch of her uncle’s Paul artistic legacy (did they fuck? did they not fuck? mystery of mysteries for all Hélène’s children).
When Hélène unexpectedly ‘passes away’, the grandest dilemma of the inheritors (not children) is how to divvy up the spoils (Odilon Redon, Camille Corot, etc.), and whether the weight of the past (and the antique furniture that is their inheritance) is worth carrying. Thankfully, after all the trials, travails and tribulations, a solution will be found thanks to the French state’s generosity, conceding the Berthiers a tax discount for the donation of their inheritance to the national patrimony.
Summer Hours proposes an immersion into the ‘problems’ of a family of ultra-wealthy, ultra-bourgeois for which we are to have the grandest of sympathies, (because after all, they are the bearers of an artistic heritage) whose involvement in art approaches them as near to aristocracy as one can reach today, and to cheer them on as they cajole ministers into offering them tax discounts. As each inheritor struggles with how to deal with their portion of the past’s heavy burden, we witness each family member’s conflicting ‘concerns,’ ‘interests,’ and ‘troubles’ which of course only stem from their natural and most realistic human goodness. Thankfully, we are provided enough aural and visual syrup to help this improbable mass slide down our optical canals – with luminous airy ambiences, gliding cameras, light shining through the waving branches, the tinkle of children’s laughter, and the glory of pristine museum masterpieces (placed in a realistic setting).
Yet Summer Hours is not entirely without argument – borrowing its Bracquemond vases (a charitable gift for the loyal maid) or Majorelle desk (see it live in the Musée d’Orsay this week! Tickets here!) from the Museum, Summer Hours romanticizes an idea of the “re-personalization” of art, in which art should be “moved out of the museums and back into people’s houses.” The question the film too conveniently forgets to ask is: whose houses?
To which there is only one answer – art will belong only those who can afford to acquire it. In a world in which a painting sells for $120 million and in which no wealthy baron or Hollywood star is without an art consultant, the possession of art objects has become one of the primary requirements for propulsion into the tight meritocratic circles of the ultra-wealthy. Rather than undoing the museumification of artistic values as it purportedly intends, Summer Hours spreads the corrupt museum values into the private sphere, with the pretense of reprivatizing the values of power (the museum objects), in fact only affirming the hold of museum values in the lives of the most privileged who are to benefit most from the relation of power in a smarmy sentimentalized glorification of the past.
After the Berthier family sells off their estate (tax free!), they have time to display for us less happy folks their great joy one final celebration in a sunny, wondrous affirmation of life (children frolicking in the sun-speckled garden, delicate gliding steadicam, Fragonard sentimentality) affirming the glory of youth as its philosophical foundation (teens passing around a joint, kids bouncing a ball off the bare walls), all superficial imagery making the single argument of positivist progress.
Summer Hours’ cinematic glaze is laid heavily upon the surface of its imagery to conceal the narrative motivation upon which the film revolves, namely death, forgetting that without death there can be no art. Ultimately, though, Summer Hours despite being a museum-sponsored middlebrow middle-class mouthpiece does present us a certain truth of the European world which it (too?) realistically portrays – the truth of representation of its deathless aesthetic, of a world in which no one shits and no one dies, they only powder their noses before passing away.