Summer Hours (2009)

On my tenth birthday, a family member of mine died. The event, while sudden in a sense (what caused it was sudden), had been inevitable for over a week. The question wasn’t if, it was when. The real challenge came next, after the grief and the burial – the technicalities. From memory, we spent over a year of Saturdays cleaning out his apartment. Looking through boxes, finding old photos, letters, clothing, BETA tapes, vinyl records, papers, and just all-around stuff. We had no idea so much could be crammed into such a small space. There was nearly 100 years in Australia in there, multiple houses full of relics in cupboards, drawers, and on tables. So many lives. It was exhausting, being stuck in dust for hours and hours, sorting through things, where everything meant something to this person, surrounded by the if’s and what’s, the unknown of so many people contained in things. We were surrounded by death. We had no idea what to do with any of it. It didn’t feel right to throw it away, it felt disrespectful to throw memories, history, pearls of life that held so much meaning to someone, in an antique shop or in the bin. Eventually, we realised that it was just stuff. Most of it, the things that didn’t hold sentimental value, that were just pieces of paper and fabric, didn’t mean anything to us. We just felt obligated to because of the past. 

Summer Hours is about obligation and legacy. Three siblings, modern figures of an economist, a designer, and one the head of a Nike factory in Shanghai; who left the nest long ago, and are disconnected from each other and scattered across the world, completely foreign from the small, old village on the fringes of Paris in which they grew up, reunite at their mother’s 75th birthday party. A rather romantic figure who has lived a life born into cultural prosperity, the niece of a famous artist, accumulating a great number of prized artworks and other artefacts, she begins to tell her eldest son, the only child that has remained in France, the stories of the things that she expects will be sold when she dies. She’s feeling that death is inevitable.

You can probably work out what happens from there, Summer Hours is not a film that hinges on plot detail. When the mother passes away suddenly, the three siblings are left to deal with a legacy which should feel like a privilege, to be surrounded by so many coveted things, but instead feels like a burden. The family legacy, all the mother’s memories, is contained entirely in valuable artworks. To her, they had memories attached to them – of passion, of love, of life, of secrets, of the best time of her life. They compose her life, they were made because of her, they will never hold the same meaning to anyone else. To her children, they don’t contain life or memories. Their connection isn’t to the house or the things within it, they are burdened by the stuff. They feel obligated to keep it, to hold onto the things that meant a lot to someone they loved, but they don’t really want it or know what to do with it. It’s not their life, they don’t want to shoehorn it into theirs. The long-serving maid, Eloise, articulates this perfectly:

“I wouldn’t know what to do with a valuable thing.”

Starting and ending with scenes that feature in many childhood memories of family gatherings, Summer Hours is understated and devoid of hysteria. It’s about passing the flame, but not through stuff. Legacy, the relics passed from generation to generation, is memories, stories. Life moving through our minds.

Rating: 4/5

If you’re in Australia, you can watch Summer Hours for free until Friday on SBS On Demand

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