There have been countless films made about what happens after someone dies. But 'Summer Hours,' the remarkable new-ish film by Oliver Assayas, takes a fresh approach by examining a death (and the loss that follows) in terms of the artwork they left behind.
It's really remarkable.
The movie starts with an annual gathering at the summer home of matriarch Helene (Edith Scob). It's the only time that her scattered family gets together anymore. Helene has three children. There's Frederic (Charles Berling), the strong older son who kind of keeps things together and still lives in France; Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) who works for a shoe company in China; and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), who lives in America.
They're all there for Helene's 75th birthday and yet all any of them can talk about is how busy they all are. Helene guides Frederic around the summer home, going through the many priceless works of art. Helene's uncle was a famous artist, who she felt very close to (maybe a little too close), and also has several original works of his.
In walking around and describing the works of art, she's letting him know what she's going to pass down, not only to her children but to their children too. As much as Frederic protests his mother's walking will, he's kind of goggle-eyed. Along with Frederic, you watch a very powerful legacy unfold.
The kids leave and the next time we pick up with the family again, Helene has died. The way the movie handles time is incredible, and I'm not really sure I've seen a director handle the passage of time in such a sure-handed way, in a very, very long while. Time has passed since the summer gathering and we think that Helene has made it to San Francisco to go to a retrospective of her uncle's work (something mentioned in that summer gathering).
We watch the way that the family dynamics change and evolve in the wake of her death. We also take particular interest in what happens to the summer home's caretaker, in a subplot of surprising emotional power.
But really, the movie takes on an element of suspense after her death as we all wonder – what will happen to these works of art that Helene showed Frederic? If you know anything about the movie, then you know that it was partially funded and inspired by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. But that doesn't rob the film of any of its electricity.
And no matter how important the art is, and how much emphasis is placed on the works themselves, you get the impression that, no matter how priceless these things are, the real legacy Helene leaves behind is her children. The movie never makes a point of saying this, there isn't some big neon sign that reads "THE MORAL OF THIS STORY." Assayas is a wonderful director, and beyond all that. He just lets things unfold, beautifully.
Some movies are so quiet, so restrained, that if you don't pay attention to the essential power that is contained within, you might miss it. 'Summer Hours' is one of those movies.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region A locked. It doesn't automatically play. This being a Criterion Collection disc, its spine number is 513. That's pretty much it.
'Summer Hours' comes equipped with a transfer just as beautiful as the movie itself. Seriously, the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (maintaining its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1) is a stunner.
According to its accompanying booklet, the transfer was supervised by director Olivier Assayas and approved by Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier. It is a "new high definition transfer… created from an interpositive."
Everything about this is gorgeous. Skin tones look amazing, detail is sharp, and blacks (which there aren't many) are deep and dark. The whole movie has this golden, sundrenched hue that absolutely envelops you (subtler shifts in seasons are represented too). It's a beautiful and naturalistic look that you want to live in.
There aren't any major film-related issues and there aren't any buggy technical issues either. It's pretty much a peerless presentation.
There is only one audio track option on this disc, a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track with English subtitles but really, when it sounds this good, one is all you need.
Again, going back to the booklet: "This film features a fully digital soundtrack. The audio for this release was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD." The release also features new and improved English subtitles (the movie was originally released way back in 2008 and had its North American premiere at that year's New York Film Festival).
This isn't some smash-bang audio track, but it's subtle and engaging throughout. It's dialogue heavy, so things are mostly front and center, but what really struck me about this track is its sense of place. You really feel like you're there – in this country house, walking around the streets of Paris, and later, inside the echo-y halls of an art museum.
There aren't any technical glitches to speak of either (no hiss, pops etc.).
All the extras that are present here are also a part of Criterion's DVD release of the title. The only additional item is the "Timeline" feature that's now a standard part of Criterion Blu-ray releases.
'Summer Hours,' like the pieces it depicts, is a priceless work of art – beautifully realized, wonderfully acted, and emotionally riveting. With superb audio and video and a small but amazing collection of extras, this is a must own if I've ever seen one. Just do it.