My dad owns some property in East Tennessee, a green wonderland that borders the stunning Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The plot has been in my family since 1808, and when I visit, I am overwhelmed by the heritage. My grandparents lived on the land till they died a few years ago. Now it is in limbo. No one in my family lives near enough to visit very often, but selling is unthinkable. The place sits largely unused as we fret over what seems at once a gift and a burden.
So I know exactly what Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie are going through. They're the siblings at the heart of Summer Hours, a moving, understated French film, directed by Oliver Assayas of Irma Vep fame, about the thorny problems of death and inheritance.
As the film begins, it is the 75th birthday of the siblings' mother, Hélène (Edith Scob). Along with boisterous grandchildren, the three have come to Hélène's gorgeous house for a party. One sibling, Frédéric (Charles Berling), lives in nearby Paris with his family, but career-minded Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) has traveled from China, where he works for Puma, aloof Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, here a beautiful blond) from New York.
Hélène is the niece of a famous painter. The house was his, in fact, and it is a piece of French cultural history, thanks to the valuable Art Nouveau furniture and the Corot paintings. Hélène talks to her grown children about what to do with all this when she's gone. That makes them uncomfortable.
Time passes, Hélène dies, and the three are left to deal with their mother's property. The two who live abroad want to get rid of everything. Frédéric wants to keep the place, partly to preserve their great-uncle's memory, partly so the family can vacation there. In a series of get-togethers the three deliberate over wine and cigarettes. They learn that they can avoid a massive tax by donating much of the estate to the Musée d'Orsay.
The siblings talk about all this very reasonably, with affection, even. They get along remarkably well. They face what seems a simple choice: We can go with this option, or this one. The problem is that grief keeps creeping in, along with different ideas of what it means to be a family.
Frédéric seems to be the oldest, and he voluntarily takes on their mother's burden of holding the brood together. It is a moving performance by Berling. He wears a stoic mask amid the family disagreement, which accompanies a professional mini-crisis and problems with his teenage daughter, who shoplifts and smokes pot. Sometimes, when he is alone, he cries.
The siblings talk on and on about what to do with all the stuff. Largely unheard are the voices of the two brothers' young children, who in the very first scenes we see romping in the vast, wooded playground that is their grandmother's rambling estate. But the film's most shattering moment comes when one of the kids, an adolescent, gets lost in memories of her grandmother, of the estate, of happy times playing there.
It's the same feeling I get when I visit my family's land in East Tennessee. I too look back on happy times playing in those woods, and I remember my grandmother. And like the kid in Summer Hours, I become inconsolably sad.