I am of the opinion that Juliette Binoche is simply the greatest actress working today. No one else disappears into a character as completely as she does—nor to such mesmerizing effect. Of course, most of her appearances are in art-house and foreign pictures, so most Americans probably aren't too familiar with her body of work, but if you asked me to pick one quintessential Binoche film, I'd be sorely tempted to choose Summer Hours. Not because it's her best role, necessarily—it's fine work, but she's essentially a supporting character, ceding most of the screen time to a pair of other actors—but, in an odd and serendipitous way, it contains echoes of so many other great Binoche movies: The haunted, grieving quality of Three Colors: Blue, the meditative and occasionally whimsical tone of Flight of the Red Balloon, and even the spirited celebration of family a la Dan in Real Life.
But of course, this isn't really her movie at all; it belongs, more than anyone, to director Olivier Assayas, a name that is as well-known to world cinema lovers as it is unknown to typical multiplex-goers. And there's never been a better time to expand your horizons and introduce yourself to the famed auteur's work: Summer Hours is a beautiful and profound movie that's haunting and human, elliptical yet entirely compelling.
I know what you're probably thinking right now, and the answer is a qualified yes: It is a French art film, which means that it is very talky, light on "action," and somewhat cerebral. It requires patience and close attention. Such a viewer will be surprised and delighted by this heartfelt and human work, rich in compassion and subtle humor. And while its story may be simple, it's also efficient in its narrative and sense of pacing, moving forward and developing its themes and characters with remarkable precision. The actors are all wonderfully understated, and the camerawork frames them in light and color, bringing to the film a certain sense of wonder that falls somewhere between nostalgia and simple, childlike whimsy.
The story centers around three adult siblings. Binoche plays Adrienne, the talented, artistically-minded sister who lives in America—but hers is the smallest of the three central roles. Charles Berling is the focal point, an author and professor who still lives in the siblings' native France, and through whose eyes we see the story unfold. Jeremie Renier rounds out the bunch as Jeremie, a businessman who lives with his wife and kids in China.
The siblings rarely see each other, and the entire movies centers around a series of reunions. In the first, they're gathered at their family's luxurious estate to celebrate the birthday of their mother, Helene (Edith Scob); three generations together, and the occasion is a joyful one—the bonds of family are cherished with vivid clarity and heartfelt empathy, as family members share memories and talk about the future.
And that is one of the film's central themes: The ravages of time. The second time we see them all together, Helene is now dead, and the siblings have gathered to mourn. But of course, there is more to be done than simply grieve; Helene owned not only a large estate, but also a sizable art collection, and the siblings are left to consider what to do with all these items.
That's another theme: The relationship between the emotional need to grieve and the practical, material concerns of moving on with our lives in the wake of heartbreak. Indeed, the story of how the family grieves is told, on some level, by the material objects they are left with. Considering the priceless paintings and the large house they grew up in, their minds hearken to childhood memories, and they feel a strange sadness at the thought of having to sell the art. And yet they know their memories aren't truly tied to those objects; for some of the characters, getting rid of the things might be the only way to truly move on.
It's very much a film about grief and coping with loss, which might sound like a downer, but that's not the case at all. Assayas is an assured storyteller in whose hands this tale becomes life-affirming, as we discover—alongside the characters—that the bonds of family and the uniting nature of shared memories are not tied to material things, nor are they snuffed out by death. Thus, what could have been a cinematic wake turns out to be a big-screen celebration—a beautiful and profound movie that feels less like a work of entertainment, and more like a gift of something sublime.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- How do the three siblings deal with their grief?
- What is the relationship between the characters and the material objects that are important to them—i.e., the home, the paintings, etc.?
- In what kind of light does the film portray family?
- Do you think the story is depressing? Uplifting? A little bit of both?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is not rated. There is nothing objectionable in it, though there are some slightly grown-up themes—death, mostly, and also a brief scene in which a father and daughter talk about drug use.
Photos © IFC
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What other Christian critics are saying:
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingEvangelicals Are the Most Beloved US Faith Group Among EvangelicalsAnd among the worst-rated by everybody else.
- From the MagazineBhutanese Nepali Refugees Turn Their Trials into Zeal for EvangelismThousands found Jesus while displaced, which prepared them to plant churches and settle in a new land.
- Editor's PickKnowing the Future Doesn’t Cure AnxietyOur true comfort comes in trusting in the one who holds tomorrow.