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Form and Function: On the Object Lessons of Summer Hours

Form and Function: On the Object Lessons of <em>Summer Hours</em><em></em>

By 2008, Olivier Assayas was perhaps best known as a director of fraught, emotionally intense, experimentally structured thrillers such as Irma Vep (1996), demonlover (2002), and Boarding Gate (2007), so the contemplative quiet of the feature he released that year, Summer Hours, may have come as something of a surprise. Nonetheless, the movie showed Assayas as a fully mature filmmaker, developing his themes from the physicality of the setting as well as the extraordinary performances of his cast.

On a fundamental level, the story concerns the three adult Marly siblings, who are faced with the process of breaking up the estate of their uncle, artist Paul Berthier, upon the death of their mother, Hélène (performed by Edith Scob), with whom Berthier had a long, secret affair. Many of the estate’s various objects are also objets d’art. The viewer watches as vases, glassware, and furniture are transformed from their utilitarian, private functions in the home to their more austere but nonetheless public presentation in the Musée d’Orsay. Over the course of this process, Assayas offers us a deeply felt meditation not only on the function of art but also on time itself, on family, on love, and on human change, all of which builds toward a moment of emotional tension filmed and staged so quietly and unobtrusively that we are left to feel as if we have accidentally happened, entirely uninvited, upon an intimate scene and are now unable to turn away—the effect of which is to transfer that intimacy to us, its secret becoming our own.

But in order to understand what happens in this, the film’s antepenultimate scene, we first must consider three objects that, for the duration of the movie, have returned again and again, each time increasingly freighted with meaning. One is a breathtaking art nouveau mahogany desk by Louis Majorelle; the others are two glass vases by Félix Bracquemond. By the point of the scene in question, we have observed these objects many times, in the studio and residence of the late Paul Berthier. But the viewer quickly comes to understand that this film is less about Berthier than it is about the utility of art within the life of a home, and what the removal and recontextualization of such objects can mean. The Majorelle desk is valuable, to be sure, but it is a desk, and in the family home it was used as such. Similarly, Éloise, the family’s beloved housekeeper (played by Isabelle Sadoyan), favors the two Bracquemond vases for asters, and, indeed, after Hélène’s death, when the house is sold and Éloise is offered a keepsake, it is one of these, “a vase with big green bubbles,” that she takes with her, an object that will continue to hold both personal and utilitarian meaning in her life. (“I can keep putting flowers in it and think of [Hélène],” she says.)

The house itself and the art objects of the Berthier estate fit well within what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative,” a series of objects, situations, or events that works toward creating a meaningful emotional response in the audience. Frédéric, the eldest Marly son (played with subtle control by Charles Berling), is the member of the family who most struggles with the disassembling of the house. He is, perhaps, the only one of the deceased matriarch’s adult children who personally remembers his uncle, but, perhaps more important, he is the son who feels the greatest sense of attachment not only to the house itself but to the objects in it. (The fraught scene in which the children decide to sell the home, against Frédéric’s wishes, is itself wonderfully explicated by Kent Jones in an essay on this site.) These objects are, for Frédéric, a part of his family, a family whose members have long since flooded away into their separate lives. Indeed, of the three adult children, only Frédéric continues to live in France, and his siblings’ attachment to the objects of their uncle’s artistic life, objects protected by their mother, is decidedly less nostalgic in tone. They take a few odds and ends for themselves, sell off the “important” pieces, and move on with their lives.

In the antepenultimate scene, we are first given a view of the Musée d’Orsay’s main hall, and then follow an anonymous couple on a brief tour of the restoration rooms, in one of which we are afforded a view of a small sculpture in the process of being repaired, a piece we have previously been told was broken by the rambunctious Marly children many years before. But this is only the setup for what is to come. As we enter a gallery at the museum with a tour, the group stops before the Majorelle desk, and one member steps away, approaching the foreground, where he takes a brief, meaningless call, temporarily separating from the others. “Let’s see a movie. Choose something,” he says into his phone. “I can meet you wherever. I won’t be long.” In a moment substantively without substance, Assayas gives us what the average museum patron may see or not see: a beautiful desk amidst many other beautiful objects, something easily missed in the span of a quick distraction.

It is into the vacancy left by the group that Frédéric and his wife, Lisa (Dominque Reymond), enter to view the desk in its museum setting for the first time, initially passing in front of the camera so that we are only afforded a view of their backs. Then we turn to view them askance as Berling’s performance is marked by a great sigh. “Doesn’t it seem caged?” he says after some preliminary discussion. Frédéric’s discomfort with the museum is one of personal history in contrast to public good. He gestures to the vases in a nearby case, not yet understanding that the remaining Bracquemond is similarly displayed elsewhere in the same room: “They mean something with flowers,” he says to Lisa, “in a living room.” His argument is that utilitarian objects such as glassware derive their value from personal connections to them, as do representational artworks—he goes on to narrate a brief anecdote about a painting’s relation to its subject.

It is Lisa who first sees the Bracquemond in its new home. Here is the same vase that Éloise used to fill with flowers, now displayed in a glass case, sans flowers, sans natural light, tagged with a nameplate, all of which Assayas gives us via a slow downward pan through the case. “There’s another one,” Frédéric says. “I gave it to Éloise.”

They discuss, briefly, the old housekeeper’s Christmas card, and when Lisa asks her husband if he wrote her back, he can only shake his head. We see him through the rear of the case, through two panes of glass, his eyes focused just off camera on the objects held within, his wife’s eyes turning to focus on him. “I forgot,” he says. “You promised you would,” she answers. 

This is, I think, the most devastating moment in the entire film, the moment in which all of the themes of Summer Hours are brought together, wholly and completely, not only because Assayas gives us the recontextualized objects but because he shows the viewer that Frédéric, the character with the deepest emotional attachments to these very objects, has forgotten the much more real connection he shared with Éloise herself. This is Assayas’s objective correlative. The vase is in the case. We are afforded the reverse shot, Frédéric’s and Lisa’s backs mirroring how the couple first entered the scene. Cinematographer Eric Gautier keeps the vase in focus, so that Frédéric and Lisa blur. He leans his head against hers. The vase is in the case, and he has begun to forget Éloise. Already his ties to the past are slipping away or already gone. Time has moved on. 

“Come on . . . let’s go,” he says.

The palette of this film, its texture, includes Gautier’s careful use of reflection and light, most often utilized to obscure Frédéric, especially in moments when he is at his most emotionally vulnerable. It is as if Assayas wants to allow him his dignity, a decision that makes his pain—and Charles Berling’s performance—all the more intimate, since we must peer through the glass and the reflections to find this man and his wife, and even after that we are not permitted to follow them out of the museum, not immediately, but instead swerve back to the vase. Frédéric, now gone from the frame—and, we assume, the room—has commented that the desk looks “caged,” but it is the vase that is caged now, caged not only by the glass case that contains it but also by the architectural angles that form an interlocking grid in the background. We are reminded that only the second vase, the one in Éloise’s possession, remains alive, although this view is complicated by Frédéric’s own inability to remember to write her. That this image is of an empty glass vessel gathered together in a glass vessel with other empty glass vessels is yet another of Assayas’s symbolic systems that serves, as Eliot theorized, to drive the emotional moment home. These are objects of daily life given importance that returns them to their makers by removing them from their utilitarian history. It is the same desk, the same vase, but both have been, in a sense, remade as objects to view rather than to use, but in this remaking they are available to all comers, for everyone rather than for one family, or one person. In this way, then, film itself—an experience of looking rather than a physical object—is also a kind of glass vase, and this one is especially beautiful in its subtle movement.

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