May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 20, 2009
At first, it probably looks like a simplistic rock sculpture, carefully held together with glue.
But those who watch artist Andy Goldsworthy construct this monolith of rickety seashore stones know otherwise. The column of precisely balanced puzzle pieces is a brilliant work of balance and concentration. And to its maker, this egg-shaped monument is profound. He invested so much time in constructing it, watched attempt after attempt shift suddenly and collapse. But now, he’s done it—each piece holds, and it stands as a testament to his infinite patience as well as an expression of mysteries contained in the materials themselves. It is a work of art.
But what is its value, really? How would you measure its worth?
We could argue about this, but Goldsworthy isn’t finished yet. He’s built this sculpture on the seashore, and the tide is coming in. The questions begin to pulse louder with every encroaching wave: Is this artwork built to last, or will it all be erased? Does resilience have anything to do with real value?
In the documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working in Time, as Goldsworthy makes his first attempts at crafting this rickety column, he describes his to us about his creative process. It’s a spiritual discipline, clearly, and a labor of love. He tells us that the materials “speak to him” about what they are and what they mean. And he listens, developing an intimate connection with his art. Then, when the waters come in and conceal it entirely, Goldsworthy says he feel the presence of the unseen stones. It’s as if the time and attention he’s given those jagged rocks have formed a lasting bond between creator and creation. An invisible cord is strung between them.
We, the observers, feel it too. A living thing has been taken by the sea and is holding her breath beneath the tide. Will she survive these surging waves? Will she still be standing when the tide recedes? Will she be changed? Whatever the case… we suddenly care very much.
* * *
In Olivier Assayas’ film Summer Hours, the tide is coming in on more than just works of art. This tsunami threatens to wash away the work of generations and a whole way of life. It’s a stealthy tide made not of water, but of time. And its powerful advance suggests that nothing will withstand its force.
No exaggeration—Assayas wants us to witness the end of an age.
In this film, Assayas invites us to spend time with a 21st century family in France during a reunion at a grand old estate on a beautiful piece of property not far from Paris. The matriarch, Hélène Marly, the only family member who still lives in the house, stays there because of her history with the place. But she is also a guardian of its many 19-century treasures—she protects and preserves the legacy of the late, great impressionist painter named Paul Berthier, her uncle. Our time with her is short, but it gives us some familiarity with her children, her grandchildren, her colorful family history, and her extravagant possessions.
The reunion conversation seems appropriately jovial at first. But eventually we discern a certain tension—the electricity of a gathering storm.
Berthier’s artwork is still impressive, and his collection of other masterworks is dazzling: He has left behind furniture by Louis Majorelle and Josef Hoffmann, vases by Félix Bracquemond and Atelier d’Auteuil, framed paintings by Camille Corot, and illustrated panels by Odilon Redon. But his nostalgic niece is aging. And where previous generations merely passed the possessions on, Hélène’s children have “lives of their own.”
What will become of these pieces? Indiana Jones might barge in and announce, “This stuff belongs in a museum.” But even an hour among Hélène and her children reveals it’s not as simple as that.
Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist, lives nearby and can keep an eye on Hélène and the old house. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) works as a designer of high-end accessories in New York, and rarely comes home to France anymore. Her younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), is even more disconnected; he’s in China working in the manufacture of Puma sneakers; labor is cheap there, and he when he looks at the money to be made, he sees a good future for his children.
As Hélène discusses the future of her home and her treasures, the implications of her eventual passing become more and more troubling. It isn’t just Hélène or her gallery of impressive souvenirs that face uncertain futures. Time and change seem ready to sweep away the entire paradigm in which her life and Berthier’s art made sense.
What is more, the very movie that houses them—its rhythms, its formality, its restraint, its orderliness—seems suddenly antique. As the new age washes in, it is characterized by globalism, mass-production, digital information, and convenience.
How can any of these artistic traditions endure? Who will guard such delicate inventions and translate them for future generations? When the tide recedes, what will remain?
Ah, but that’s the problem with time. It’s a tide that has one mode: Advance.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Has there ever been a movie in which inanimate objects take on such extraordinary importance? If there were Oscars handed out for pieces of furniture, Summer Hours would be this year’s front-runner. Its sculptures, paintings, and artful pieces of furniture reveal themselves to be mysterious and powerful, inspiring outbursts of emotion and life-changing power over the human beings around them.
Let’s consider some of the leading roles in this colorful cast:
THE BERTHIER HOUSE
Top-billing in this film should go to Hélène’s house itself.
This haunted house is at once a palace, a prison, and a tomb. It seems as spacious as the manor of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, a mansion made of love, artistry, and distinction rather than factory formulas. But while the house is extravagantly decorated with historic works of art, Hélène’s daily life there seems to be a stroll through a maze of memory. Scenes are occasionally bathed in a gauzy light, as if the place is fading before our eyes. Her hopes of passing this property on to her grandchildren are fading, for the world has changed too much.
But really, what’s so special about this place? The antiques? The art? The memories?
Well, first of all—it’s beautiful. It’s hard not to covet this fantastic piece of architecture and its idyllic surroundings. Even the cinematographer, Eric Gautier, seems dizzy as he wanders through its rooms.
In one breathtaking sequence near the film’s conclusion, the camera drifts like a ghost in a full-circle tour of the main floor, looking out through large windows at the yards outside while Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), the estate’s housekeeper-locked out of the mansion where she has served for decades-tries to find a way in. We can see how empty the place has become. The first wave of the storm—represented by the arrival of the art assessors—has carried off so many important pieces. What remains is debris, like the cardboard box of a new telephone that is no value to anybody.
It’s interesting that Eloise, the one inhabitant of the house who is not a member of the family, is the only living soul still wandering about the property after everything “valuable” has been cleared away. But it makes perfect sense. Eloise has attended to every detail of this house with her feather dusters and her heart. No one knows how it is put together like she does.
But we also go with Eloise to visit Hélène’s grave. The house, beautiful as it is, is only valuable to Eloise within the context of her relationship with the woman she served for so many years. The furniture is only meaningful as an extension of the bodies of those she has loved. And she has known a lot of love there. Hélène’s family is a rare big-screen wonder, for they clearly care for and respect each other, and any argument that upsets the peace is quickly followed by embraces and genuine affection.
So as the water rises, we vicariously experience that anguish Eloise feels. She is still in love, intimately familiar with the house and its secrets, bound to it all by an invisible cord, even as it sinks beneath the tide.
THE MOHAIR BLANKET AND THE TELEPHONE
The film opens during Hélène’s birthday party. Her children have brought their spouses and the grandchildren for what we quickly suspect may be their last such reunion. The children scamper down through the property’s beautiful trees and gardens on a scavenger hunt across the property. They follow clues across the fields and up the trees to discover something that qualifies as “treasure.”
What do you call treasure? This is a central theme in Summer Hours. Is something valuable to you because of its aesthetic beauty? Its historic significance? Sentimental attachment? Monetary value? It’s durability?
When the children bring the prize-grandmother’s birthday present-back to the table, they find the adults in patient conversation about the changing world.
As Hélène opens her gift, she seems pleased, but only politely. “A gift for an old person,” she chuckles wryly, drawing out a mohair blanket. It’s clear that the blanket does not impress her-but, she admits, it is “useful.” It will keep her warm in the evenings in front of the television. It will provide comfort that none of her other treasures could never offer.
The next birthday package contains a telephone—a very modern telephone, lacking in any personality or beauty. Practical? Of course. It will keep her in touch with her family in any room of the house. Artless convenience—the way of the future.
Hélène is put off by the gift; she doesn’t want the hassle of reading a manual and dealing with technology she doesn’t understand.
And yet, while the store-bought blanket and the standard telephone may still prove useful to the next generation, why do we feel disconnected from them at the film’s close?
Does aesthetic beauty make something valuable after all?
THE TEA SET AND THE TRAY
For Hélène’s daughter Adrienne, practicality makes a lot of sense. After all, she spends her days crafting funky, stylish, modern oddments meant to appeal to the wealthy.
But look at her reaction to the silver-coated tea tray that her mother presents to her. It’s not the practicality that impresses her. She’s enchanted by the beauty of the tray’s leaf-line inlay. Adrienne actually embraces the tray, expressing an enthusiasm for its one-of-a-kind craftsmanship that she does not show for the practical dishes of her own design.
What about the tea set that Hélène values? Adrienne admits she will not have any use for such a thing. And, under pressure, she admits that she prefers contemporary art because it is not “weighed down” with history.
But this—there’s something about the way the light catches those delicate lines. There’s mystery in the love and attention that was lavished on it by its creator. It reflect something more than light, transmits something more than usefulness.
THE MAJORELLE DESK AND THE ARMOIRE
Frédéric (Charles Berling) is drawn to certain objects for other reasons entirely.
As the eldest son, he’s the one that Hélène places in charge of overseeing the house treasures after she’s gone. But Frédéric wants to keep the house, for he grew up in it. It’s full of his memories. What is more, he wants to keep the picture of his mother intact, untarnished by revelations about her past that suggests she might not have been a paragon of virtue.
We can see what Frédéric, in his love, cannot. Berthier’s memory is too precious to Hélène. She tells Frédéric about traveling with her uncle to one of his exhibitions. The exhibit did not go well at all; they made no money, and the critics were cruel. But she speaks of this with an ecstatic glow on her face. Her memory of traveling with Paul has lit her like the flame within a lantern. And in that moment the nature of Hélène’s “treasure” becomes clear—her memory of Paul’s love is more precious than any of his works of art. But the art is all she has left of him. The value she places upon these things cannot be transferred, for she cannot bequeath her private experience to another. In fact, she can barely speak of it for the scandal, and her son would rather not know.
Perhaps that is why Hélène urges her son to dissolve the estate, and distribute the art to museums that will protect it. Why burden her descendants with cargo that they do not understand? The secret of her romance with her uncle will die with her, living on only as a scandalous anecdote among those close to her. She can only hope to preserve what may yet do honor to her uncle. She wants to keep his sketchbooks intact, even though she knows that Christy’s in New York will only buy them if they are taken apart into separate sketches. This new age wants to subdivide and deconstruct everything, killing what lives in its togetherness. She cannot tolerate the idea of subdividing her uncle’s life’s story like that. She wants to find someone who will respect the wholeness of his vision.
Meanwhile, there’s the orchid desk by Louise Majorelle, furniture of such beauty that I nearly stood up and made a bid in the theater (and since Christmas is coming, please take note of this).
Is it useful? No question. Piles of Hélène’s paperwork arrays its handsome surface.
Is it beautiful? Mercy, yes.
Is it famous? The assessors are ready to take it away to the Musee d’Orsay.
But Frédéric cringes at the idea of seeing it “caged” in a museum. He senses that something of its dignity will die in that cold, public display. He wants to keep these things together. The desk won’t be meaningful to him without the paperwork, or polished up and presented in the cold, inhumane context of a museum. He is not particularly impressed with the artistry of the famous, stylish armoire that stands in the same room, but when he opens its cabinet door, his face lights up with delight. He withdraws a plastic airplane, a toy that comes with memories attached.
It’s a fleeting moment, but viewers are likely to remember it later with the art assessors show up and begin announcing what is valuable and what isn’t. For Frédéric, the importance of these things is directly connected to his experience with them. When he draws his son and daughter aside to show them two paintings—not just paintings, but paintings by Corot—hanging in the house, they’re not impressed. “They’re of another era,” says Emile, Frédéric’s son, with a shrug.
Perhaps that has something to do with Frédéric’s own argument that there is no such thing as an “economy.” As far as he’s concerned, our ideas about value are all wrong, and the forces that determine what makes something valuable are as uncontrollable and unstoppable as the tide.
THE GLASS VASES
When the art dealers arrive after Hélène’s death, trying to assess the “value” of each piece, they are intrigued by two glass vases—vessels Hélène did not particularly value, and which she kept stashed away in a cabinet.
It turns out they are the work of Félix Bracquemond, and are much more valuable than the family realized. Why were they kept shut away? Hélène didn’t like them, we’re told.
Oh, but Eloise did. They were useful in her labor of love, and she became attached to them.
So, in a scene that will be a highlight of the movie for many, Frédéric encourages Eloise to choose a keepsake from among his mother’s treasures. Eloise, always humble, chooses one of the vases. She’s oblivious to the fact that this “ordinary” token of her devotion to the house is, in fact, immensely valuable to the art world. She decides to take something useful and “ordinary” instead.
And there is particular joy in this, for poor Eloise is a refugee of the dying age. She now must leave this grand estate and move into a nondescript apartment in a building owned by her nephew. Behind that bland door, identified only by a number, she will finish out her days with her memories. Her son, meanwhile—an agent of the new, global generation—will be off in Spain, stopping by only occasionally.
Eventually, much of Berthier’s collection is “caged” in museums. We see the Majorelle desk on display, without any piles of paperwork, in the Musee d’Orsay, where half-bored tourists wander past, distracted. (One calls up a friend on his cell phone, making plans to meet for a movie.) Most go on without any understanding of the history and “value” of these pieces.
But the vase? We know that Eloise will see it and appreciate it as fully as anyone can. It will remain buried treasure, behind an unremarkable door, on an unremarkable street, alive like a sacred relic.
* * *
In the closing scene, the next generation takes possession of the house, if only for a weekend. It may inspire in the viewer an excruciating sense of desecration, as the youngsters pump the place full of hard rock, dance in the empty rooms, lounge and smoke against the walls where great beauty was once handsomely framed.
Even the music is fractured. If somebody doesn’t like what’s on, they press a button and they’re on to something else.
But even as these distracted, sensation-seeking youngsters spill out across the property for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the movie takes a surprising turn. Assayas suggests that the new age is not all bad. What might have been a bleak and hopeless conclusion becomes, unexpectedly, the film’s most vibrant sequence.
And there is symmetry in it.
Hélène’s granddaughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), leads her boyfriend—who looks like Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson with a nose much larger and more interesting—across the property. They’re on a “treasure hunt” of their own, searching for a private place, presumably for lovemaking.
But there is also something meaningful in the style of this scene. Assayas breaks out of the mode of the traditional, literary European drama. He shifts gears from “Merchant Ivory” classicism to hand-held-video spontaneity, charging across the property and following whatever catches his interest. It’s exhilarating and strangely liberating. The movie suddenly ignites with energy.
The lovers disregard paths, they disregard everything-even walls. As they climb over a stone barrier, they pause on top, engulfed in sunglight, and we feel we are crossing into a new Edenic era. What will this new future hold? What influence will art, tradition, and history have-if they have any at all?
Sylvie pauses. She looks back. Something has caught her attention. She remembers a painting created in this place, depicting this very perspective. But the view has changed; branches of the trees now obscure the view that the painter enjoyed. Still, the picture stays with her. It unlocks her memory, and brings back to her a remembrance of her grandmother, and a promise that she would inherit this place and raise her grandchildren here.
But Sylvie knows it won’t happen. She’s standing in the dying light of a lost world. The changing landscape of international relations and business has given her a different world to inhabit.
We have to hope that she has indeed inherited something after all—some kind of treasure, carried to her through an act of the imagination.
* * *
Andy Goldsworthy stands on the shore, breathless with anticipation.
The tide recedes.
His masterwork is still standing. Impossibly, its structure has held true throughout the flood. It now holds more meaning for him and for us. He talks about how he has given his work to the tide, and the tide has made more of it than he could ever have imagined.
Perhaps that is what matters most when it comes to art—or anything. When we craft something with loving attention, share it with affection, attend to what it reveals, and then humbly surrender it to the tide, we may carry with us what mattered most. That precious gift is a mystery that cannot be reduced to a paraphrase. Art is not an end in itself, but what it gives us equips us for life more abundant. While its pieces may end up little more than wreckage, its value lives in the light that it gives us to see more clearly, and in what we are inspired to do about that revelation.
And perhaps those pieces will be discovered, fragments of mystery whispering to those with the patience to look.
I suspect that Assayas’ film will still be speaking to anyone who finds it for many years to come.
I could be wrong.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.