LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Traumatic events transpire with exquisite delicacy in "Summer Hours," the latest film from Olivier Assayas.
The French writer-director observantly explores the nature of life and death, identity and family, and the value of material objects — both monetarily and sentimentally — with his story of three siblings coping with the loss of the family matriarch.
Most recently, in films like "Clean" and "Demonlover," Assayas has visited the seamier side of life. Here, he turns his intimate gaze on topics that are simpler and more universal.
He begins with an idyllic summer day at a rambling country estate outside France. It's the 75th birthday of the sharp, chic Helene (Edith Scob) and her grown children, and their children, have gathered to celebrate at the home she shares with the eclectic 19th century art collection she inherited from her uncle.
While the kids chase each other on the lawn, the grown-ups enjoy lunch, wine and laughs around a table in the garden.
It's all tres French, almost a parody — but Assayas uses this platform to lure us in and ultimately reveal larger truths, ones that are relatable regardless of culture.
Once Helene dies — something that was in the air even at this happy initial occasion — it's up to her fortysomething children to decide what to do with the home and the valuable items inside. The eldest, Frederic (Charles Berling), an economist and professor, is the only one still living in Paris, so naturally he wants to keep it all for them to pass along to the next generation. But Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer who's constantly on the go between New York and Tokyo, and youngest child Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), a businessman living with his family in China, have other ideas.
One of the loveliest aspects of Assayas' film is how authentically he depicts the three reacting differently to their mother's death. (The filmmaker acknowledges the debt he owes to Chekhov in inventing this family drama.) And yes, it is a dramatic situation, but Assayas never even comes close to devolving into melodrama; the siblings are so matter-of-fact and so civil with each other during this painful process, you keep waiting for one of them to snap, but no one ever does.
If anything is lacking in "Summer Hours," it's a sense of tension. The tone remains at a sort of softly mesmerizing even keel.
Instead, Frederic, Adrienne and Jeremie go through their mother's prized belongings and decide what to keep for themselves, what to auction off and what to offer to the Musee D'Orsay; in the process, they're also forced to re-establish who they are without the woman who raised them as children and anchored them as adults.
What should they do with the Corot paintings, the tucked-away glass vases, the silver tray that still holds childhood memories? One of the few amusing moments comes in the form of a Degas sculpture, long since broken, its shattered plaster chunks collected in a plastic shopping bag and stashed in a cabinet. The victim of the brothers running through the house as boys, it was a once worthwhile piece that's been turned into a fond anecdote.
Berling, Binoche and Renier all play off each other effortlessly (Binoche is especially lovely with her contradictory combination of nostalgia and restlessness), and "Summer Hours" makes you feel comfortable spending time with their family, too.
"Summer Hours," an IFC Films release, is not rated but contains language, smoking and some drug references. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.