By John Magary
A word about France.
It’s inevitable, this divvying up of a festival’s offerings into national trends. We are post-global, or something, I know, and with the increasing connectivity, the world just gets smaller, and the access gets better -- Kazakhstan’s representing hardcore at the Festival this year! But there’s also a drop off in... I think there’s a French word for this. Yeah: mystique. The old ecstatic glimpse in international cinema, when films might have enchanted through sheer force of exoticism -- “Who cares what’s happening, they’re Chinese!” -- has subsided a little, dulled by the web and the Discovery Channel and the glories of aeroplane travel. This is a good thing, mostly. We’ll always be attracted to the exotic, sure, but maybe now we can watch a movie in Kazakhstan without gawking; we can look past looking, see more and more of ourselves with each passing frame. Understanding, empathy, etc. That’s what I like to think anyway.
Long story short, every now and then, I like to remind myself how neat it is that I can sit in a dark theater in New York and, for lack of a better term, visit with Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Pablo Larrain or Brillante Mendoza. It’s neat, isn’t it, the mystique?
But, seriously, this is an election season. Let’s sharpen the knives: How’s France doing? Very well, actually. Exceedingly well. Holy shit, they’re dominating: They’re like the United States of art cinema, spreading their imperial seed to South Korea (Night and Day, set in Paris) and Cuba/USA (funding for Che) and -- where else? -- Kazakhstan (funding for Chouga…maybe Tulpan, as well? I can’t keep track anymore). That’s just the tip of the funding iceberg. Let’s face it: Without French dollars, the NYFF might’ve had to cancel this year.
No, but France, the French. How are they doing? Man, really, really well. There is some masterful work here. I already talked about Cantet’s excellent The Class, so let’s talk about Summer Hours, from Olivier Assayas, that whirling dramatist of global tension, who, apropos of what I’m gabbing on about here, remarks in the press kit, “I’ve always felt like a sort of Taiwanese director working in France.” Serendipitous, then, that Summer Hours is a commission from the Musee d’Orsay, whose last commission was Flight of the Red Balloon, a Paris-set slice of reflection from hugely admired Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien that, like Summer Hours, stars Juliette Binoche. (For the sake of diplomatic roundness, perhaps it would be prudent for Juliette Binoche to start referring to herself as a Taiwanese actress working for Taiwanese people in France.) The commission required that at least some of the film be shot inside the Musee d’Orsay, which seems understandable, but also a little silly. (You’re a museum, you respect these artists... Why not let them run free? Is this just tony brand extension?)
Summer Hours (screening tonight at 9 at the Ziegfeld Theater), however, infuses the musty confines of the project with ever-passing life. The story centers around a family and its inheritance. After the sudden death of their mother, three comfortably middle-class/age siblings -- designer Adrienne (Binoche), businessman Jérémie (Jérémie Renier, miles away from the scrappy survivors of La Promesse and L’enfant), and professor Frédéric (Assayas regular Charles Berling) -- must divide their inheritance, which consists of a) their great-uncle’s remarkable art collection and b) a leafy house trembling with childhood memories.
With a gentler touch than he’s shown recently -- the French are remarkably humane and accessible this year -- Assayas draws these siblings into a delicate opposition. Jérémie oversees production in China and Adrienne lives with her husband in New York, leaving Frédéric, the film’s anchor, to maintain the family’s last vestige of a traditional “French” existence. When the question of keeping the house comes up, guess who wants to keep it and guess who doesn’t? Thematically, this could easily slip into convenient commentary: Globalization pulls a family apart, then comes back for the goods.
But the days gone by take primacy, and the film settles into an inevitable patience, wrestling bittersweetly with the past. Frédéric and Adrienne pick through the collection, the paintings and chairs and dishes, and as the house empties, the art’s value shifts. Some pieces will be kept, some auctioned off, some... displayed cleanly for strangers in the Musee d’Orsay. The house slips from the family, almost silently, as though passing in its sleep. But what’s the final value on this death? In an echo of his own Cold Water, Assayas resuscitates the house, now a shell, in a lovely final gesture: a teenage party, bursting at the seams with careless misbehavior. The party’s organizer is Frédéric’s daughter, of course, eager to take possession of the past and the passed on. The final value has yet to be set.
A last question, to bring us back: could our glimpse of Summer Hours be called ecstatic? The world here is one of families and goods and art and loss and heritage: It’s unmistakably French, certainly, but perhaps not exotic. Still, there’s a magic here, even if it’s a kind of sad magic, something heavy and invisible spinning these siblings and parents and children around an always-dying center. Call it the family mystique.
John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.
Posted at October 2, 2008 7:26 AM
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