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The House Was Alive Then

September 28th, 2010 · No Comments

The Bechdel Test was named for Allison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985 measured the female presence in movies by employing three criteria: Are there two or more women in it, with names? Do the women talk to each other? About something other than a man? Far too many mainstream movies flunk this test, but in the month of September, I take a look at ten movies that pass.

Summer Hours (2008)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Written by Olivier Assayas
Produced by Marin Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert
103 minutes

Taking the scenic route through a story with remarkably deep and affecting ideas, Summer Hours books us passage with the most ordinary family seen on film or television all year. The film leapt from notes filmmaker Olivier Assayas scribbled about how art that once meant something very tangible to an artist inevitably ends up locked in the exhibit case of a museum. Ironically, the project was intended as a short to be sponsored by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. When the Ministry of Culture pulled financing, Assayas got his script to veteran producer Marin Karmitz. With Summer Hours meeting the approval of the typically fussy French film industry — it was French language, with French actors, shot exclusively in France — a budget of €5.6 million ($7.6 million USD) was raised with much less grief than Assayas’s previous feature Boarding Gate.

Premiering March 2008 in France, Summer Hours screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September and the New York Film Festival in October. Despite receiving some of the best reviews of the year, the film received a very limited release May 2009 in the U.S. While its idyllic pace and seeming lack of earth shattering drama didn’t go over well with distributors, Summer Hours paints a bittersweet portrait of a family moving so fast that only the very old and very young seem to notice something being lost. Assayas demonstrates enough confidence in his cast and in the quiet observations of his script that the everyday nature of the film becomes its strength. Director of photography Eric Gautier helps lend a home movie intimacy, while the Musée d’Orsay opened its doors to filming as well as loaning the production its cultural artifacts.

At her country estate, Hélène Berthier (Edith Scob) welcomes her children and their families for her 75th birthday. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an economics professor who lives in Paris. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is an art designer who now resides in New York while Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), his wife and three children have relocated to China for his job with Puma. They’re heirs to a handful of artifacts — including the house and two priceless paintings by Corot — that belonged to their great-uncle Paul Berthier, a renowned artist. Hélène annoys Frédéric by instructing him what to do with each object once she’s gone. The son announces his intent to keep the house and its items in the family, which Hélène sees as improbable. Housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) confides to Frédéric that despite her energy, his mother has been depressed lately.

When Hélène passes away, her children reunite for the funeral. As their mother suspected, Adrienne expresses no desire to live in France while Jérémie has been promoted and in need of money, also prefers to sell the house and its treasures. Frédéric laments the verdict to his wife (Dominique Reymond), particularly the loss of the Corot paintings, which he envisioned passing down to his children Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) and Pierre (Emile Berling), teenagers who express little interest in bric-a-brac from another era. Donating several pieces to the Musee d’Orlay to avoid estate taxes, Frédéric doubts whether a vase that once held flowers still means anything locked in an exhibition case. He grants his teens permission to throw a graduation party at the country house before its lease expires and even Sylvie begins to sense something is being lost.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 3,670 users: 60% for Summer Hours

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 84 for Summer Hours

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Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Mother/daughter relationship · Museums and galleries

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