Friday, September 24, 2010

Summer Hours (L'heure d'été) -- globalization and values

Director: Olivier Assayas, 2008. (NR)

Living. Dying. Eating. Drinking. Collecting things. Enjoying family. Arguing with siblings. Such is the stuff of real life. And real life can be banal and boring. Summer Hours is a deceptively simple and slow film about ordinary life. Like life it seems to plod along with little plot and little purpose. Yet, beneath its exquisite exterior exterior it offers some critique of current issues.

The story revolves around three middle-aged siblings and their mother, Helene (Edith Scob). She lives in the French countryside in a beautiful house set in lush and expansive gardens. Her house is filled with antiques and original art treasures that she has collected and enjoys. Yet, she is growing old and is preparing for her demise, wanting to leave a legacy that won't cause subsequent strife among her kids.

In the opening act, Helene is hosting her 80th birthday party. Her family surrounds her, kids and grand-kids all seated around the large outdoor dining table. But she pulls Federic (Charles Berling), her eldest child who is an economics professor in Paris, aside to walk him through her desires for the disbursement of the treasures upon her death. Although he does not want to hear this, she insists. She wants the antiques and art to be sold or donated, and not force the three siblings to retain the then empty house as a museum or mausoleum.

The other two siblings are younger and more diverse. Both have deserted France for the riches of global economics. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, Blue, almost unrecognizable with  blond hair) designs things in New York for a Japanese company. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), the baby, works in Shanghai for a sports shoe company. Both have found more fortune outside of Europe than at home.

In act 2, Helene has died and the three siblings must determine the fate of the family house and furniture. It is here that their differences emerge. And it is here that the film sheds light on values, both the values of the people and the values of the objects.

In one sense Summer Hours is a reproach on capitalist globalization. By moving away from France, Adrienne and Jeremie have lost a part of their culture and upbringing. The ties to their family have been eroded; they can only see each other once or twice a year now, if that. Further, in doing so they have also essentially ensured that their children will have even less ties to France and family. That is clear in the film. Surrounded by foreigners, they will not absorb the cultural climes of their parents.

There are both pros and cons here. Certainly, it is impossible to prevent progress. In this technological age such progress includes always-on communications and global commerce. The price it often costs us, though, is free time and local traditions. These are sacrificed. Balance is needed. We need to draw some limits on when we will work, so that we can spend time with our families. The Bible commands the Jews to take a sabbath day of rest (Exod. 20:8-10), to set aside the cares and worries of earning a living and focusing on the one who cares and provides for them: the creator. In taking a day to worship and rest, we also can recharge our batteries for another week of work (Heb. 4:9).

More than this, though, there is a need to celebrate our traditional values. If we become part of the global melting pot, as the two younger siblings had, we lose our cultural identity and uniqueness. The Jews in the Old Testament were commanded to celebrate a number of feast days to remember who they were and where they had come from (Lev. 23:4). The Passover Feast, for example, reminded them of the act of Yahweh to save them from Pharaoh and bring them out of Egypt when he struck down the first-born throughout the land (Lev. 23:5). That feast pointed ahead, too, to Jesus the final passover sacrifice (Jn. 1:29). Though younger generations scoff at tradition, it serves a genuine and valuable purpose.

Summer Hours also addresses the value of objects. To the owner, the vases and paintings evoke strong memories of loved ones and gatherings. Once removed from the context of home and people, the objects revert to being things, albeit beautiful and expensive things. And who owns them? When they were in Helene's home they were hers. She owned them, she enjoyed them. She treasured them. When they find themselves in a museum they are on display for the world to see. Though they now belong to society as a whole, they really belong to no one. We see people walk past the objects and look without really seeing. They mean little to the vast numbers of the populace who pass by. Only Frederic and his wife really see the value in these objects. For him they represent fading memories and treasured heirlooms; to the rest they represent a past they may not have known and may not care about.

When Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Helene's elderly housekeeper returns to the house, Frederic tells her to take something for sentimental reasons to remind her of the family. She chose a vase. She tells her nephew, "He said to choose anything. I couldn't take advantage. I took something ordinary. What would I do with something valuable?" Little did she know that that vase was one of the most expensive objects in the house. To her, it was a thing she used to hold cut flowers, one of a pair of vases.

The two vases stand as contrasts. One will be used in her home to hold flowers and beautify her residence. The other stands lonely in the museum offering a glimpse of beauty to those who will look. Both are valuable. But what is true value? Certainly, Eloise's was enjoyed more at risk of being broken.

These vases remind us metaphorically of the ordinariness yet tremendous value of each person. We all are very ordinary. We look around and see other ordinary people. Yet, each of us bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and have been created with the ability to come into a relationship with him, even to become a child of his (Gal. 3:26). Our value is significant enough that he sent Jesus to die for us, to enable this relationship to happen. Everyone is ordinary. And no one is ordinary. We are all treasures, like these vases, though we may not look it. We bear this treasure in clay jars (2 Cor. 4:7).

Like the vase in the museum that belongs to the world, Adrienne and Jeremie belong to the world, having cut their ties to France. But like the vase they have become rootless and left with little of deep value. Better, perhaps, is the vase that is taken and used that retains its purpose. Frederic is like this vase, retaining his roots in France, though not without his own problems.

The opening and closing scenes form a pair of bookends that summarise the contrasting values. In the opening, the family has come together to celebrate. Three generations sit side by side enjoying one another and having fun in a simple manner. The closing scene shows the same country house. This time the grandchildren are having a party. Their friends are gathered together.  But the friendships seem superficial. Now it is noisy with music and dancing. Kids are drinking and smoking dope. The house is bereft of furniture. The traditions have been erased; the modern has taken over.

Summer Hours leaves us reflecting on our own values and the value we place on our possessions. How much have we bought into the globalization of culture? And how much care do we place in maintaining our own cultural traditions, passing them on to our own children?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs   
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