France has churned out some decent dramas lately—I've Loved You So Long and A Christmas Tale both offered honest, sophisticated versions of contemporary family life. Summer Hours, a new film by writer/director Olivier Assayas, aims for a little honesty and sophistication of its own, but ultimately, it mines the deep vein of family dysfunction far less successfully than its predecessors.
Summer Hours takes as its jumping-off point a universally relatable source of boomer anxiety: what to do when your parents die. Much of the film is set at an estate in the French countryside, one formerly owned by a famous painter and now maintained by his niece, Hélène (Edith Scob). The estate is filled with rare and valuable objects: paintings, vases, cabinets, desks, many of them destined to end up in museums. When Hélène dies, the house and its contents are left to her three adult children, and a rift immediately forms between Frédéric (Charles Berling), who lives in Paris and wants to keep the house, and his siblings, both of whom live abroad and would rather sell it.
The tensions between the siblings boil down to their respective relationships to the past: Frédéric is interested in preserving a link to both his family's past and his country's, while his siblings are happy to forge ahead into a global future. The ease with which these differences are identified, though, is why Summer Hours is fundamentally frustrating: It's so fraught that every cabinet and vase practically creaks with meaning. The film's like a naggy English teacher, constantly asking study questions to test your comprehension of the material: How do humans assign value? Is art worth more on the wall or in a museum? Here, symbols and their meanings don't arise naturally from the interactions of the characters; rather, family relationships seem almost an afterthought, incidental to an underlying message about how French people are letting globalization destroy their culture. Which is, undeniably, a total drag—just like Summer Hours.