Conversations about film
November 13, 2020
Directed by Olivier Assayas, 2008
Jim Wilson: Hey, Michael, welcome back.
Michael Clawson: Hey, Jim, I’m glad to be back! We’re kicking this off after a long, grueling week of waiting to hear who our next president will be. Have you been obsessively checking the news like me? Or have you tuned it out and kept your head in the movies?
Jim: The waiting was miserable. But I have to tell you, I’ve been thinking about this edition for a while now, anticipating it, because of its timing. I’ve wondered often how the outcome of the election might color our moods when it came time to do this. As much as film watching and discussion provides us with a redoubt against the madness of today’s world, I couldn’t help but wonder if that sturdy fortress might be overcome by the unthinkable. But alas, I think we dodged that bullet, and have something – a little something – to celebrate near the end of a pretty terrible year.
So, let’s get into it. In the big, wide wonderful world of Olivier Assayas films, when and how did you come to Summer Hours?
Michael: I’d wondered about that too, the possibility of struggling to get into the right frame of mind for this discussion had things gone differently. Fortunately, I can report I’m very much here mentally and am excited to talk through a movie that I love, and that I gather you like quite a bit too.
I first saw Summer Hours in May 2019. Mubi was doing a small Assayas retrospective at the time ahead of the release of Non-Fiction—”The Parallel Worlds of Olivier Assayas” was the program name—and during it I caught Summer Hours as well as Demonlover (also a great movie). I’d already seen Clouds of Sils Maria, Something in the Air, and Personal Shopper, and was already a big Assayas fan, but Summer Hours was the film that really cemented him as one of my favorite directors. I was deeply moved by it, and for reasons we will without a doubt discuss, I remember thinking a lot afterwards about some of the material things and pieces of art both that I own now and that sit in the house I grew up in, and what they’ve meant to me in the past and what they’ll mean to me down the line.
How about you? How did you first meet Summer Hours?
Jim: I don’t remember exactly when I first saw it, but it was at the same time I first saw Clouds and Personal Shopper, meaning Assayas’ more recent stuff. As you may have gathered about me by now, I tend to fix my sights on individual actors who impress me, and then hunt down as many of their titles as I can find. And in this case, it was Juliette Binoche. I’m pretty sure it was my love for Binoche that led me to Summer Hours, and by that route to Assayas in general.
Parallel experiences in our own lives to the elements of this film are something I want to touch on, because I think it probably has a lot to do with how much a viewer will relate to and like this film, or not. But first, let’s go over a general summary of the storyline. The film opens with a family gathering at a home in the country not far outside of Paris. Who do meet and what do we learn?
Michael: We meet quite a few people! The family gathering you mention is a birthday celebration for elderly matriarch Hélène Berthier, who’s played by Edith Scob. Hélène is joined by her three grown children, Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Dardenne film regular Jérémie Renier), along with Frédéric and Jérémie’s spouses and each couple’s children. Frédéric and his wife have a teenage son and daughter, who play more of a role in the story than Jérémie’s younger children. The film opens on a warm, festive note with everyone in mostly good spirits: it’s a sunny summer day, and the kids are running around outside with the dogs in tow while the adults pop champagne, talk, and open presents on the patio.
Assayas efficiently and organically familiarizes us with each of the adults. We learn that art collection has been a major aspect of Hélène’s life, and the family home, where she now lives with just her housekeeper (her grown kids have moved and scattered geographically), is full of the paintings and furniture pieces she’s accrued over the years. Of special interest to her has been the preservation and exhibition of the work of her artist uncle, Paul Berthier, for whom she had a great deal of affection. So much so that she changed her last name from Marly to Berthier. We also learn about her children’s lives and occupations: Jérémie and his family have flown in from China, where he works in business (for the shoe company Puma, more specifically), Frédéric and his family live in Paris, where’s he an economics professor and writer, and Adrienne lives with her boyfriend in New York, where she’s a product designer.
The primary narrative thread begins when Hélène talks with Frederic about what will be done with the family home and all the art it houses when she passes away. There’s talk of whether or not the work should be donated, and if the house ought to be kept or sold. It’s shortly after the film’s extended opening that we jump forward in time to when Hélène has in fact passed away, and Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie are forced to confront those same questions together.
I think Assayas does a really phenomenal job of laying the groundwork and establishing family dynamics in the film’s beginning. What do you think? And what do you make of everyone up to this point? Please add detail or correct me on anything I’ve misremembered.
Jim: That whole opening act is as good an example as you’ll find of Assayas’ talent for constructing a world that instantly feels lived-in and natural. The camera follows the children and the dogs running down stairs and paths in the woods, climbing trees, pausing to decipher a clue that’s part of the treasure hunt they’re playing at, then erupting again into motion, what I like to call Assayas’ kinetic camera. When the attention turns to the adults seated around the outdoor table, the camera follows the bustle of Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie as they bring their mother presents to open, capturing their respective points-of-view, then eventually settles into more sustained examinations of the personal dynamics between characters. From a purely filmmaking perspective, the opening segment is a remarkable accomplishment.
There is one goof that amuses me every time I watch it. Did you notice that when Hélène unwraps the book about her uncle’s artwork, the wrapping paper doesn’t tear off cleanly, and in the series of shots that follow, the remnants of the paper still attached to the book come and go discontinuously? First there’s a little piece in the corner, then it’s gone, then it comes back. It’s surprising to see flaws like that with Assayas.
The three primary gifts that Hélène receives from her three children are worth noting. Her two sons give her practical gifts, while Adrienne, who shares her mother’s love for art, gives her the book on Berthier. We learn a lot about Hélène from the way she reacts to each of the gifts. The cordless phone (with three handsets!) that Frédéric gives her annoys her, and she does little to pretend otherwise. It’s a piece of modern technology that, though useful, couldn’t be less meaningful to her; it appears several times in subsequent scenes throughout the film, but never actually leaves the box. The blanket that Jérémie gives her she waves off as a typical thing to give an old woman. She’s grateful, but honest, and seems to be maybe agitated or depressed about something, but it’s unclear, at least at this point, why.
There’s a great little scene between Hélène and Adrienne when they trade their opinions about certain design aesthetics. Although it’s evident that Adrienne doesn’t share her mother’s taste for an elaborate silver tea service, she nevertheless concedes its beauty. As a designer of dishware herself, she has strong opinions, but is politely restrained about expressing them. But as we’ve seen, Hélène likes to express herself frankly, so says what Adrienne politely won’t. “In general,” Hélène tells her, “you prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” which Adrienne quietly confirms. Not only is it a telling exchange between mother and daughter, but serves also as a great thematic point for the film as a whole. The exchange about the stamped silver tray is especially cool, since it prompts Adrienne to recall a surreal dream in which the tray is transformed into a living thing. I really love that scene between those two. Just watching Edith Scob and Juliette Binoche working off each other and building those characters is a wonderful thing to behold.
Talk more about the opening act, since it has, in my opinion, an outsized importance in the film. Of course, there’s the conversation between Frédéric and his mother, which you’ve already outlined. What other details stick with you from that first twenty-six minutes?
Michael: The continuity error you mentioned, I didn’t catch that! I’ll be watching for it on my next viewing. I heard Assayas say in an interview that he doesn’t map out any of his camera movement until the morning of a shoot. With that in mind, it’s kind of surprising that you don’t see more of those kinds of issues, but you’re right, it’s not something you expect to see in his films. Just to quickly build on your comments about Assayas’ kinetic camera: in interviews, the first thing you notice about Assayas is that he’s a fast thinker and a fast talker. I’ve always liked how the nimble camerawork that you alluded to feels like an extension of that aspect of his personality. That occasional feeling of restlessness in his camera movement is especially electrifying in Irma Vep, but I agree with you, the opening of Summer Hours is another great example of it.
Another brief interaction from the opening act that’s worth mentioning occurs between Frédéric and his teenagers, Sylvie and Pierre. He pulls them aside at one point and draws their attention to two paintings in the house by a 19th century painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. As they’re looking at the paintings, Frédéric tells Sylvie and Pierre that the art will someday be theirs, but he doesn’t get much more than a shrug in terms of a response from them. “They’re okay, but not what I like most,” Sylvie says. Pierre: “Yeah, it’s another era.” A cut then quickly takes us back outside to the patio. I like the brevity of this moment. So much of the movie is about how each member and successive generation of a family relates to the family home and all that it contains. Moments like these are illuminating, but Assayas doesn’t overemphasize their connection to the larger theme, and instead lets them unfold quite nonchalantly.
In addition to the silver tray that you already mentioned, Assayas draws our eye towards a few particular objects in the opening act. One is a vase that Frédéric asks the housekeeper Éloise to retrieve from a cupboard so that he can put flowers he’s picked in it. Another is a broken Degas sculpture made from plaster that Frédéric and Jérémie apparently broke when they were young. I especially like the significance of the sculpture. One idea that I think the film hits on relates to how objects have multiple functions: something like a vase can have aesthetic value, economic value, sentimental value, and practical utility. The broken sculpture has lost its aesthetic value, but it remains a container of memories for Frédéric. Assayas is constantly having us reappraise the objects we follow throughout the movie, gently nudging us to see each object’s different functions and their meaning to different characters.
There’s more detail in the opening act that we can discuss, so fill in anything we haven’t touched on yet, or feel free to take us forward narratively.
Jim: Maybe Assayas films are filled with continuity errors, but I don’t see them. That’s more likely than anything.
The kinetic camera. It was the first thing that really knocked me out about Assayas. I’m always awed by how his camera swoops into the physical flow of his characters and trails so smoothly beside them, weaving through crowded, tight little spaces. Often his films start with it, which lends that feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story already underway.
I think we can move on to the middle section of the film, a series of episodes that follow the death of Hélène and involve Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie dealing with the estate, including an undertaker, a lawyer and various museum officials, art experts and appraisers. I’m less enamored with this part of the story than I am with the opening and closing sequences. Though there’s an overarching quality of procedural box-checking, which loses me a bit, the ensemble performances from Berling, Binoche, Renier, and the actors who play their wives and fiancé, are thrilling to watch. The meeting when they all come to the realization that the house has to be sold is a fantastic feat of psychological subtlety, from script to direction to performance. The potential for conflict is obvious in their facial expressions and halting words, while their efforts to steer a careful course to resolution are nearly as suspenseful as a car chase.
I have some thoughts on the predominance of stuff as the ostensible subject of these scenes, and the driving force of globalization that serves as the soup it’s all suspended in, but I’ll sit on that for now and let you take the conversation wherever you like. There are lots of fascinating subjects circling around over the middle act that each individual viewer can prioritize as more or less relevant than others. What’s your read on it?
Michael: I would agree that it’s in the first and final act that the film soars. One thing I find intriguing about the middle section is how Assayas skips over certain narrative beats. For example, there’s the scene where Adrienne comes out of a room at what looks like a small event center, where they presumably just held a memorial service for Hélène. I think it’s one of Binoche’s finest moments in the film: Adrienne sits down next to her boyfriend, the camera elegantly follows a curved line as it comes towards her, and she begins to cry, sorrowfully shaking her head as she processes her mother’s passing. I love that Assayas ditches some obviously emotional moments in favor of subtler ones, as he does here. He’s dipped his toes into various genres, like crime/espionage with Wasp Network and Carlos, or the supernatural with Personal Shopper, but melodrama is one kind of storytelling I just can’t imagine him doing.
Back to Summer Hours and its middle portion specifically: what stands out in terms of the family dynamics is Frédéric’s slight bewilderment at the ease with which his siblings are willing to sell what they’ve inherited. He’s reluctant to let go of the house, where he thinks they all ought to convene periodically before eventually passing the house on to their kids. It’s clear that he assumed Adrienne and Jérémie would feel the same way, and when he learns otherwise, his disappointment is mildly heartbreaking. I see a lot of myself in Frédéric here. I’m the kind of person who will cling to material things that I associate with meaningful memories. I also have a strong attachment to the house I grew up in. Assayas doesn’t begrudge Adrienne and Jérémie for their practically minded votes to sell everything, but I think he extends his sympathy to Frédéric. You feel it, for example, when shortly after the votes to sell or not have been cast, the camera follows Frédéric into another room, a bedroom, where he takes a minute to be alone, too in his head to have even turned on the lights as he walked in.
So, what are your thoughts about the film’s interest in globalization? I find it rather tragic that while globalization suggests interconnectedness at a macro level, it can mean the opposite on a personal level. It’s a force that’s actually pulling this family in different directions.
Jim: Well, first, yes, the scene with Adrienne crying after the memorial service is peak Binoche. That little shake of her head tells you so much about how she’s processing her grief in that moment, that she’s feeling things she can’t quite believe, or understand, or accept. With great actors, it’s always the smallest things that signal their genius the loudest.
More than globalization, I see heritage as the central concern of Summer Hours, and globalization its principal challenge. The inheritance of the family home and the works of art within it are an obvious metaphor for national heritage (in this case French), and the sense of birthright its citizens feel for the country and its cultural inheritance. Globalization, which distresses established notions about national and cultural congruity and the shared identity of discrete subsets of people, isn’t, in my view, a good or bad thing, but an unavoidable fact that compels us to reevaluate all kinds of things, one of which is heritage. The fragmenting caused by globalization may actually help reveal things we hadn’t noticed before, and help resolve differences that might otherwise fester.
Imagine the Marlys, these same individuals, going through this same ordeal in a previous era. More than likely, the three adult children would live in relatively close proximity to one another and the ancestral home. The passing of the estate from one generation to the next would simply happen, as a matter of course. There would be no discussion about it. But would that mean that Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie would be equally enthusiastic about it, that each would share the same love for the place and desire to convene there for every special event? If the way I read Adrienne, and, to a lesser degree, Jérémie, is correct, their love for the place would not be as strong as Frédéric’s, but they would feel obliged to observe the ritual gatherings as a matter of tradition, in effect doing things they’re not entirely thrilled about doing. It’s also worth noting that in a previous era, Adrienne, as a woman, the little sister of two older brothers, would not likely have much say in any of it at all.
So, are the forces of globalization, and modernization, on the family helping to liberate some of them from insular family obligations they enjoy less than others? I don’t know if you have siblings, Michael, but do they, or would they, have the same feelings about the family home as you? I’m not trying to posit that globalization is some kind of enabler of selfishness – it doesn’t have intentions – but it certainly has the effect of cracking open previously closed systems. As frightening and alienating as globalization can be for many, it does have the power to liberate, and to foster reinvention, for others. For some, heritage and tradition are penultimate, while for others they’re suffocating. I think that dynamic is at play between the adult siblings, their mother, and the family estate, and, again, in a symbolic fashion, for national heritage at large. I’m reminded of a moment when Adrienne admits to not having a strong connection to the house, or desire to return to it, and, she adds, no strong desire to return to France.
The children, the actual young people in the film, are another factor entirely, which we’ll surely get to, but I’ll shut up now. You brought the film, so I want to hear more about your thoughts.
Michael: That’s an interesting take! I’ve been seeing it the other way around. I’ve thought of Adrienne and Jérémie as lightly swept up in globalization’s currents in a way that abets their detachment from their heritage and home. In addition to the comments Adrienne makes about the family home and France meaning less and less to her, she also says, in the film’s first few minutes, that she can’t come visit Hélène more often because the demands of her job keep her tied down in New York. I’ve wondered if it’s the extended periods of time away, immersed in her work and a different culture in a distant city, that in part causes Adrienne’s estrangement from her roots. Jérémie, on the other hand, is more transparently excited about an increasingly interconnected world, but I don’t get the sense that it’s because he wants to untether himself from his origins. It’s mentioned that while he’s further away from Hélène than Adrienne, he consistently visits every summer, and at Hélène’s birthday celebration, he seems even happier than Adrienne to be there. I also wonder just how truly empowered he is by the transformations in his line of work. His job is going to China whether he likes it or not. I see your point though. A globalized economy can be empowering for someone who’s stifled by or dissatisfied with their current place in the world. You’ve definitely complicated my thoughts about what might be underlying each of the Marly children’s motivations. And of course, there’s the simple matter of each character’s personality. Regardless of their relationship to these larger forces that we’re talking about, Adrienne and Jérémie do seem like they just aren’t as sentimental as Frédéric.
Before we switch to talking about the young people, which will probably lead us into the film’s final third, I’ll bring up one character whose role in the story I absolutely love: Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s bespectacled, endearing, and dependable elderly housekeeper. The house and all the art inside it isn’t hers to keep or sell, but it’s her life that will arguably change most dramatically based on what the grown Marly children decide to do. She seems as emotionally connected to the material inheritance as Frédéric, if not even more so! We learn that after the sale, Éloise will relocate to the South of France, where she has relatives. Frédéric, Jérémie, and Adrienne are by no means inconsiderate towards Éloise, but I find it incredibly poignant how she’s essentially voiceless in the matter, and is left to process Hélène’s passing more or less alone (I forget who the gentleman is that accompanies her on a few trips to the house. Hopefully he’s good company?). The scenes where she comes to check up on the house, first in the winter, when Frédéric and Adrienne are there with buyers, and then again in warmer weather, after the house has been emptied, are so melancholy and wonderful. The loveliness of the score, with its acoustic guitar and strings, really comes forward in those moments. Éloise long knew how all this would likely turn out, but I can’t imagine that makes it any easier for her to say goodbye to the physical space and things she’s become so intimately acquainted with.
Jim: Okay, let me try it this way…
Perhaps I’m overstating it, or evaluating these characters too rigidly, but I do think Assayas is not merely viewing them as people affected by the currents of globalization and shifting cultural expectations. There’s a through-line in a lot of his films about the emancipation of individuals from things that restrict them, including themselves. There’s a choice any individual can make to liberate him- or herself from any confining arrangement. I think of Charles Berling’s character Jean in the 2000 Assayas film Les Destinées sentimentales, who essentially has to break from the conservative orders that define him, including his own choices, to ultimately find his way to a place where he can live with himself. Despite where these individuals in Assayas films end up after separating from their defining circumstances, the important part, the part that interests Assayas, is the journey and the transformations they undergo in the process. Think of Christine in Cold Water.
My misstep is to assert that Adrienne and Jérémie wish to break from their family heritage. I honestly doubt they know what they want with regard to the house and the stuff, but the circumstances of their lives are permitting them to reinvent their relationships with things like family and the meaning of “home,” which they clearly find good reasons to do. And what we’re seeing with Adrienne and Jérémie in Summer Hours is each of them in the process of undergoing that cleavage, just as we see with Christine in Cold Water and Jean in Les Destinées.
I, too, love the character of Éloise. I think it’s fitting that as the only working-class character in the film, she loses the most from the sale of the house, but complains the least, since, like you say, she has no voice. She gets her consolation prize in the form of the bubble vase, an object of considerable value, though she doesn’t know that, and wouldn’t care, even if she did. The vase’s value is perfectly clear to her, as it’s always been, with its utility and its visual appeal, which is far more concrete and meaningful to her than its appraised value as a work of art. Éloise’s place in the story serves as an other perspective to the privileged positions of the three siblings, one in which the value of a place, or the value of a thing, is gauged mostly by its usefulness, or its agreeableness, not its market figure.
On the subject of the children, I want to ask you about the episode at home in Paris with Frédéric’s family, when his daughter Sylvie is busted for shoplifting. What do you think the purpose of that part of the film is? What is it contributing? It feels like a remnant of some larger side-story that was left out of the film. Or am I completely missing the obvious? Don’t get me wrong, I really like that part, and want more of it, but I’m not sure where it fits.
Michael: Totally with you. I think I’ve overstated my own point a bit! I might have made it sound like I see the grown Marly kids as helpless casualties of macro forces. I don’t, and don’t think Assayas does either. These are characters with obvious agency and decision-making power. I mean only to suggest a way in which I see globalization as very subtly impacting the Marly family.
Is it safe to assume Assayas did some shoplifting as a teen? Between the inclusion of it here and in Cold Water, it sure feels like autobiographical detail. I’m not sure how Assayas sees it fitting into the narrative or themes of the film at large, but I’m with you, I like that it’s there. I think it broadens our sense of the various roles Frédéric plays in his own life. It enriches his character. Without the shoplifting episode, we’d primarily recognize Frederic in relation to his mother and siblings, with his role as father to his own children falling into the background and out of focus. It also nicely prepares us for more time with Sylvie in the film’s incredible final stretch. What do you make of it?
Jim: Of the shoplifting or the final stretch?
Michael: The shoplifting.
Jim: I think it’s a safe assumption that Assayas was a troublemaker as a teenager.
I suspect you’re right about the shoplifting incident, not to mention the drug possession part of it, which, in an amusing exchange with his son Pierre, implicates Frédéric himself. It all serves to ground Frédéric in a minor drama about his everyday life, and gives shape to Sylvie for her central place in the final sequence, since we know little about her up to that point. She’s the eldest of her generation in the Marly clan, and so is positioned to be, like her father, the one to carry forward the mantle of the family legacy.
In one of the final scenes, after having visited the Musée d’Orsay, where some of the most valuable and culturally relevant items from the house are now on display, Frédéric and his wife Lisa are having lunch and discussing the final details of the estate sale. Lisa mentions that Sylvie and Pierre and their friends are going to spend the weekend at the house before it sells, and have a big party. Frédéric says “They better behave,” to which Lisa asks “Why?” which gradually occurs to them both as very funny, which it is. It’s really cathartic to laugh with the two of them in that instant, after so many of the heavy and melancholy events that have preceded it. Come to think of it, it does speak back to the shoplifting incident and the subsequent scolding, when Sylvie’s youthful transgressions receive a dire reaction, since here the thought of her and her friends misbehaving is casually dismissed.
This brings us to the film’s final sequence, back at the house in the country, as Sylvie and Pierre receive their friends and settle in for their festive weekend. As we know from Cold Water, Olivier Assayas is a master at capturing teenagers partying. Though here it’s a different generation, it’s no less spectacular. Describe this amazing scene, Michael. I’d love to hear you tell it.
Michael: The final ten minutes or so are utterly intoxicating. Assayas takes his kinetic camera, to use your phrase again, and sweeps it around the country house as the weekend of partying gets underway, capturing all the little sources of electricity that begin to charge the atmosphere. Friends of Sylvie and Pierre pull up in the driveway on motorbikes, beer and weed start to make their way around, speakers get set up and music starts blaring. The scene comes to life so thrillingly in part because Assayas shoots it like he does the party scene in Cold Water: he’s mainly tracking Sylvie’s movements throughout the house, but for brief moments, the camera will turn towards the other kids and follow them around a corner or as they go from inside to the patio, before returning to Sylvie. Although I suppose it technically is one, I’m not inclined to call the scene a “set piece” because of how totally organic and apparently spontaneous all the activity seems. I love it so much. The Marly home, now empty of the precious material things and art it housed for so long, is once again overflowing with life, but now it’s that of the next generation.
Jim: Set piece is accurate, I think. The last time I watched it, it did feel choreographed, though it is done with a remarkable degree of natural flow. The single driver of that flow is that Sylvie is looking for her boyfriend Richard, so she’s bouncing from group to group, asking where he is, encountering friends along the way, stopping to change the music. There is a discernible line that the camera is following, or goal it’s pursuing, which is to find Richard. When Richard is finally found at the pond, he and Sylvie keep moving, to find solitude away from the bustle of the party. The central narrative thread of the film is then concluded when Sylvie and Richard stop in an area where Sylvie recalls picking berries there with her grandmother Hélène, and how Hélène had told her that someday Sylvie would bring her children there, which prompts her to fall into a sad reverie about how that won’t happen and what she’s lost, maybe something she hasn’t fully digested until that moment. It’s intensely moving, accentuated by the camera’s painterly profile of her, cast in a warm contrast of shadow and light. The entire film pauses in that moment and reflects back on itself, then regathers and hurls forward again. Sylvie and Richard climb over an old stone wall and run off across another field as the camera, now still, watches them bound off into their future.
There really are few films with endings so great as Summer Hours. Any thoughts on it yourself? Anything we missed? And finally, since you brought the film to discuss, how would you describe its importance to you, not only as a work of art, but as a personal touchstone?
Michael: Those final few minutes with Sylvie and Richard off on their own feel like they’re right out of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love.
This movie hits on themes I’m naturally drawn to, namely family, art, and loss, and I’m just knocked out by its generally wistful tone and the gracefulness of Assayas’ storytelling. I love the films of Yasujrō Ozu, and of the Assayas films I’ve seen, Summer Hours strikes me as his most Ozu-like with its interest in the dynamics between and within the different generations of a single family. I’ve seen it several times now, and every time it puts me in a reflective state. I think about visiting my grandparent’s houses when I was young and my relationship to all the things they had, some of which are now in my apartment, and it also makes me think about my own childhood home, and how hard it’s going to be someday to make the calculations the Marly children have to make about what to keep and what to sell. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite Assayas film or not—that might be Clouds of Sils Maria—but this is the one of his that I think moves me the most.
Does Summer Hours have any special significance for you? Has it come up or down in your estimation since you first saw it?
Jim: Special significance? No, but I do love it. It’s a great comfort film. And it’s so very French, so I adore it for that, too. I would say you’ve helped me enjoy it on a more elemental level, so thank you. I think of it as a treat from one of my favorite directors. I guess my personal Assayas favorite is Personal Shopper, because of its taut formalism and Stewart’s amazing performance. All that said, I can relate to Summer Hours directly, because of an extended family property that’s left a lot of formative impressions on me since I was very young. I’ve struggled to remain connected with it, because of changes in my perception of the place and the people. That might help you, more than any of my previous words, understand some of the ways I responded to the part of the film concerned with the personal connections to the property. I think it’s crucial for our relationships with things and people to change, become challenging, and sometimes end. Stasis kind of freaks me out.
To wrap up the conversations now, I’m turning away from the film at hand and asking for a “reverb,” meaning something that your thoughts have been returning to recently. It can be anything. What’s been echoing in your brain lately, Michael?
Michael: Well, like most cinephiles, one thing I’m constantly thinking about is how cinema is and will continue to be impacted by the pandemic and political chaos in the US, neither of which look to be calming down anytime soon. More specifically though, I’ve been wondering about the possibility of there finally being less interest among general audiences in the kind of storytelling that most studio tent poles have gravitated towards in recent years. Going into 2021, what kind of appetite will people have for big-budget, spectacle-driven movies where the stakes are often absurdly, almost laughably cataclysmic, when we’ve been living through such dire times? I wonder how what constitutes escapism might change, and if there’ll be a shift in the movie mainstream towards stories that are lighter in tone. Personally, my hunger for foreign film has only intensified over the past ten months because I so desperately want to vicariously experience non-American culture. I know, these aren’t super unique ideas, but my mind does keep coming back to them.
What have you been mulling over?
Jim: I like your thinking and agree completely. I think suffering refines people’s relationship with beauty, to which all art aspires. The appetite for artifice might diminish.
I was listening to Kara Swisher interview novelist Jeff VanderMeer on her podcast Sway. VanderMeer is a big favorite of mine. He writes intensely psychedelic, weird fantastical fiction. He’s a gifted writer with a world-devouring imagination. At one point, Swisher asked him what he meant we he wrote “Find your contamination and greet it warmly. Attempt to make friends with it, and perhaps it will not destroy us.” He went on to talk about the mental construct of walls, of barriers, and how “we spend a lot of time keeping the outside outside.” He used pest control as an analogy. If you’ve read any VanderMeer, you’ll know how central this is to his work. If you’ve seen Alex Garland’s Annihilation, adapted from VanderMeer’s novel, you’ll recognize that theme there as well. Beyond the phantasmagorical panoply of his fiction, where VanderMeer explores ideas around contamination, it also has everyday applications that I probably don’t have to explain, involving anything one might observe as a contaminate, an invader, something undesirable. Isn’t it with adaptation and immersion that we always best survive incursion, rather than adding another layer of fortification to delay the inevitable? Important, too, to that survival, are mutation and death. A bit abstract and strange, I know, but VanderMeer endlessly enchants me, and given so many of the troubles rushing at us these days, the idea of absorbing contamination, both figuratively and literally, has been returning to my thoughts often since listening to that interview.
Michael, thanks for doing this with me again, and for bringing such a great film to discuss. Stay safe and we’ll do it again!
Michael: I haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, but I loved Annihilation, and your description of his work intrigues me.
Thanks again for hosting Jim, this was a lot of fun!
Jim: Watch this space in a couple weeks, when Andrew Hutchinson returns and we discuss Claire Denis’ masterpiece 35 Shots of Rum.