Identity is among the most elusive concepts that one could imagine. Not only are people inherently impossible to know or understand, but with death even the deeply flawed impressions others have of that person fade quickly. The swift decay of an individual’s legacy is as rapid as the action of worms and fungus upon the physical form. Even those gifted with talent or fame pass quickly from public and private consciousness; even if they were well known, the meaning of their lives mutates beyond recognition, and they may as well have been entirely different people. All that is left are belongings, and a domicile that could serve as a museum filled with the detritus of time and possession. As immediate memory fades, so these objects can serve as touchstones. Even this fades quickly as stuff is sold, moved, or dismantled to make room or money for the next generation. These themes run through the thoughtful Summer Hours, which has been said to echo Jean Renoir in terms of consideration of human nature. This impossible level of praise is apt enough, as the film evokes the fundamental push of entropy of not only material things, but of the soul and individual identity.
The story begins in a bucolic setting, a country house outside of Paris during a family gathering. The matriarch discusses art and books, particularly those she helped write or edit, all with a legendary painter and art collector in mind. This artist is her brother-in-law, and it is suggested, the true love of her life despite the family’s silence on the matter. Her two sons and daughter (an economist, a manager of a Chinese factory, and an art dealer) are there, all well educated and able to converse on a variety of subjects, though not necessarily art. There are tensions, both buried and on the surface, about their mother, her relative disinterest in subjects not pertaining to art, the mythic figure of their uncle and the unspoken love he and their mother shared, and how the siblings regard each other in this tangled context. None of this is played for excessive drama as the conversation veers hither and yon in a scene that seems to go on forever. This is one of those films full of thoughtful intellectuals that talk like adults and behave like adults, and you could not care less if there is a plot. You simply sit back and enjoy the verbal scenery.
After you get to know the family, a sort of direction for the movie kicks in as the mother discusses with one of her sons the possibility of death, and how to deal with the house and the various art and artifacts that stuff her house. The theme of death and what it means to those who are left behind is not a new one in cinema, but Summer Hours handles it in a mature fashion, as the death itself and the way the siblings deal with its aftermath feels natural… muted… devoid of grandstanding and speeches while giving way to awkward passages. One of the sons wishes to preserve the house as a museum to the memory of the great artist; it is evident that he reveres the man’s memory while selectively avoiding the less savory aspects of his character. The other two siblings are less sentimental, opting to keep certain items and liquidating the rest regardless of its cultural or historical importance. Where a lesser film would play this for drama in favor of the ‘loyal’ son, Summer Hours takes a larger view. Namely, that the man who created and collected the art is dead, as is his muse; their reason for being has died, and their value to the culture at large is swiftly decomposing. Even the items that may have considerable import may yet attain the lofty position of being locked behind glass to be ignored in a museum.
This description hardly does the film justice, and I found myself exhilarated by the lack of meaning of it all. For once, a filmmaker has the courage to avoid appealing to the cheap emotions inherent in death, understanding what happens to these feelings along a greater timeline. All that proves that we were once here is rapidly lost, redistributed, recycled, broken into components for reassembly; even our greatest monuments will be swept from existence within a few thousand years. The only real meaning to these artifacts are in what they make the owner feel. As an example, the housekeeper retains a worthless glass vase, as she despairs of a room without flowers. That vase turns out to be very valuable, and is eventually placed in a museum case where it will never be used. What is the meaning behind this? Well, it depends on what objects mean to you. Rather than underlining these points, the film is content to simply allow the events to progress, implying great trust in the audience. The generational gap places this central theme in sharp relief, as the children of these people know little of the artistic history of the house, nor do they really need to. And their children will understand even less about their parents’ generation, and so forth. This gives the idea of the identity of an object the scope of many years – only across a great time scale does it become clear that such things are limited in inherent meaning, if they exist at all.
Summer Hours is a mature and introspective meditation upon the continuous dissolution of all that we are; the things we are surrounded by, the friends and family that define our lives, ultimately any sign that we existed fall to dust. The characters in the film struggle against this inexorable force, but ultimately yield. Whereas a simpler drama would punctuate the proceedings with histrionic behavior, raised voices, or drawn firearms, Summer Hours is for adults and trusts you to understand and keep up with themes that are universal enough to need no outlining. The closing shots explain everything and nothing (as all the best scenes tend to) as a new generation interprets a setting in their youthful context. Things forgotten are remembered, and while some memories are kept alive to endure another few decades, eventually these will filter as well, and the land reclaims the rest.