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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Summer Hours (2008)



Reviews and Comments

Sometimes a movie comes along at just the right time. When I saw Summer Hours, my mother's parents had died within the previous year, and my father's parents had moved into a retirement community. Both situations involved the dismantling of households I had known since my very earliest memories. It is a process that triggers deep contemplation that one simply doesn't experience elsewhere in life. Summer Hours is about that process: the shifting of lifestyles and possessions that occurs when one generation yields to the next, and the generations below step up in the family hierarchy. If I had seen this film a year earlier, it is doubtful it would have resounded with me so clearly. But I didn't. I saw it precisely when I did, and it spoke to me in a way no other film ever has.

The beginning of Summer Hours chronicles a family reunion at an older woman's house, a place of great nostalgia for the middle generation but which is no longer of practical use to them. They want their kids to have the great childhood memories they have. But the woman is not going to live forever. Eventually they will have to confront the practical reality of inheriting a household they're not around to live in.

The woman herself is the only one who is willing to face her own death. She's made plans for the dispersal of her household and recognizes better than any of the younger generations that they have their own lives to live and cannot and should not spend them living hers. She pulls one of her children aside and tells him the historical and monetary worth of various household items. He doesn't want to deal with this now. But soon, he must.

The rest of the film chronicles the aftermath of her passing as it is handled by the three children. There is no unnecessary melodramatic in-fighting or no greedy in-laws. The movie finds its drama in the normal workings of a family that must process grief in parallel with the practical concerns of life.

I am probably making this film sound like a chore to get through. It will be boring to some. But I found it profoundly moving. I marvelled, too, at all the little details it gets right. The setting, for example, is handled flawlessly. In the beginning, the house looks genuinely lived-in. Cared for. Alive. A place where one could indeed have many fond childhood memories. Over the course of the film, items will be moved. Appraisers will visit. Closets will be cleaned. Slowly, the warmth of the house will fade, and the environment that fashioned those great childhood memories will disappear. The film does this uncannily well. Empty spaces start showing up in the interior decor: places where items of furniture should be but are no longer. Paintings go from hanging on hooks to leaning up against walls. Bottles of cleaning fluid and dirty paper towels start appearing on window sills. All these details are exactly right.

And what is to become of the various household items in the house? Some are passed down or given away, where they will continue to live as functioning components of a warm household. Others will be sold to museums and displayed to the public. I was enchanted by a conversation two members of the family have when they see a desk on display. In its new immaculate context, it looks the same, but it feels so different. I was reminded of objects from my own life, and of another film, too -- The Red Violin -- which also explores how an inanimate object can be imbued with life and significance from the circumstances of its use.

Also exactly right are the human stories that take place amidst all this. One of the three kids is more heartbroken than the others to see all this happen, but what can he do about it? Their own children, for which childhood memories are too recent to be sacred, are less concerned. Everything culminates in the final scene of the film, which is not played for any particular emotion -- none of this film is -- but which I found devastatingly heartbreaking. And yet, in some strange way, it felt right, natural, and healthy, too. As the old woman essentially says in the beginning of the film, we must all live our own lives. And isn't it right and good to see life pressing onward? Amidst the sadness, the film buoyed my spirits. But isn't it too bad that good things pass away?