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Summer Hours

The settling of an estate causes a French family to reflect on meaningful objects can be

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How do we hold onto the past while still moving forward -- particularly when our memories are linked to specific objects? Those queries form the heart of this low-key, talky French drama, written and directed by Olivier Assayas.

As in summers past, Hélène's extended family gathers at her country home. But Hélène (Edit Scob), now 75, is concerned about dispensation of her treasured possessions, some of them quite rare and valuable, after her death. Her eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), assures her that the family will surely keep the house -- and its belongings -- intact. Not surprisingly, after Hélène's death, things aren't so simple, as the other two children (Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier) have more immediate concerns than the preservation of the country estate.

Summer Hours is composed of vignettes that, while revealing the characters and their familial dynamics, seem designed chiefly to make you ponder sentimental objects and places, and how best to preserve the memory of the deceased. 

Assayas also poses broader questions about the value (or not) of objects in today's over-stuffed global economy -- whether it's European sneakers now made in China or an unnecessarily complicated phone. And indeed, can objects -- once removed from their real-life contexts, rich with memory and everyday use -- ever be assessed for true value? Are they, as Frédéric seems to think, our best hope for tethering collective family memories? 

The film will try the patience of anybody expecting a fiery dysfunctional-family drama; it's often as languid as the summer reveries that inform its sentimental backdrop. While there are virtually no melodramatics, the story is not without twinges of regret, frustration and bitterness. Ultimately, though, these are sensible people -- if a particular sort of fine-wine bourgeoisie that French arthouse films seem to specialize in -- and often a tight smile or shrug speaks louder than any histrionics.

Assayas' film will resonate most keenly with those in life's middle stages, for whom tidying up after the death of a close relative is a reality, or a real prospect. Yet Assayas takes care to include the perspectives of both teen-agers and the elderly -- and ultimately he grants them the purest emotional responses, perhaps because they are least encumbered by caretaking of material goods.

The ultimate decision regarding the estate is understandable, humane and rich with irony, as Assayas proffers the divergent fates of two matching vases. Each vase's new role seems right, and yet, given our deeply seated notions about emotionally, commercial and historical value, niggling doubts remain. But as Hélène matter-of-factly notes: That's how life -- and its detritus -- goes. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Aug. 7. Harris

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