Olivier Assayas has explored multiple genres and styles during his 20-odd years as a director, but he’s best identified with flashy genre deconstructions like Irma Vep, Demonlover, and Boarding Gate. The Assayas of those films is nowhere in sight in Summer Hours, a soft, chatty drama about a well-off, seemingly happy family that discovers hidden rifts once they lose beloved matriarch Edith Scob. Most of Summer Hours’ stylistic flourishes and emotional punch are limited to two scenes set at Scob’s sprawling country estate. The first, which opens the film, has Scob’s grown children enjoying what turns out to be their last group visit with their wispy, elegant, status-obsessed mom. The second, which closes the film, has Scob’s granddaughter hosting a blowout for her rowdy teenage friends before the old place gets sold off. In between, siblings bicker passive-aggressively about what to do with the rooms full of expensive arts and crafts that their mother collected, as well as who should take charge of managing the money that selling off all this stuff will bring.
Summer Hours has an appealingly lyrical look, and is well-acted by a cast of French cinema vets, but it’s dialogue-heavy, and Assayas sometimes oversells his main idea: that these brothers and sisters have their own lives to live, with little to bring them together now that Mom is gone. Still, anyone who’s ever lost touch with an entire branch of their family after an elder relative died should identify with the low-boil drama of Summer Hours, which reveals its conflicts not in big grandstanding scenes, but in quiet conversations. The film is dotted with thoughtful dialogue about what gives objects—and people—their meaning, and whether the things we once loved hold the same significance once they’re stuck behind glass, in a museum or a photo frame. Summer Hours drags in the middle, but its final scene is almost overpoweringly tender and beautiful, offering a hopeful rejoinder to all the prior scenes of family members shedding their shared legacy. Assayas seems to suggest that our attachment to people, places, and objects may change, but there’s always another generation ready to make new memories out of what we leave behind.