FILM JUNE 17, 2009
Summer Hours -- IFC Films
Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country -- Oscilloscope
The French writer-director Olivier Assayas, experienced and versatile, is now defiant. He certainly knows that one of the most frequently recurrent film themes is social change. Still, he bravely engages this familiar theme in his new film, Summer Hours. Well, we can be glad that he did. It was said of Arturo Toscanini that when he conducted a familiar piece--say, Beethoven's Fifth--he made it a world premiere. I burden Assayas with this large Toscanini comparison because Summer Hours makes us forget that we have been here before. The idea seems fresh.
Some children and adolescents come trooping through a field toward a large house. They are the grandchildren of Helene Berthier, who is seventy-five. In the house, besides Helene, are her son Frederic (with wife), his younger brother Jeremie (with wife), and his sister Adrienne. This house was once the home of a famous painter, Helene's uncle. The extraordinary furnishings, including two Corot canvases, were the uncle's acquisitions.
Helene is a poised woman, conscious of both her age and her responsibility for the lovely things in this house. She tells Frederic that the Musee d'Orsay has already shown interest in the Corots and some of the furniture, which was made by masters. She wants him to be careful of the house and these things after she is gone. Frederic of course tells her that it is too soon for her to worry about such matters, and she of course dies within a few months.
Most of the film is set in Paris apartments: houses belong in the country, in the past of these people. The heirs have to decide what to do with the legacy that is coming their way, including the house. Frederic is an economist in Paris; Jeremie is a business man who works in China; Adrienne, unmarried, is a designer who works in New York. One of Assayas's niceties is that these conversations are not material squabbles: they are sharp but smooth dramatizations of changes toward family, toward continuances--toward the family's house, for prime instance. The tugs of contemporary life, in money and in social patterns, are deployed by Assayas for insights and abutments. No one is right or wrong: everyone comes out right but a bit bruised.
Pertinent as it all is, we might begin to feel that this film about social change is not paying enough attention to changes for younger people. That kind of change then implodes. Sylvie, Frederic's teenage daughter, is arrested on a drug charge. He goes to the police station to see the relevant detective. The detective is not the usual veteran cop: he is young, bearded, easy. He wants to get rid of the case because it is only a small amount of drugs and there is too much paperwork involved. When the trouble is settled and Frederic drives Sylvie home, he reproves her, and she notes that he smokes pot, too. His reply is that at least he doesn't get caught. He also learns during the drive something that doesn't surprise him: she has a boyfriend with whom she is sexually active.
The Corots are sold--two paintings cannot be divided among three heirs--and so is the house, since two of the heirs live abroad and Frederic does not want to use it much. The family also must part with their country servant, Eloise, who has loved them for years and whom they treat generously. (Another cheer for Assayas: he makes the loyal-old-servant cliche fresh by underplaying it, leaving the tears up to us.)
In the last weekend before new owners take over the house, Frederic allows Sylvie to give a party there. (The place is almost unfurnished by now.) The teen-agers pour in with music and booze. In the last scene Sylvie and her boyfriend are in the field where the film began. She feels that she is on the cusp of time. The field and the house have been deeply important to her, yet she is glad to be entering an age that is free of them.
Assayas is not lamenting social change. He recognizes that for at least two centuries every new generation has looked worrisome to its forebears, every old generation has looked dusty to the young. He views this family's transition as historically typical. Summer Hours has a sense of flow, rather than decline.
The actors crown the film with their talents. Edith Scob, in the brief role of the poised matriarch, is quietly proud. Charles Berling as Frederic is, as intended, just another man, likable and pitiable. Juliette Binoche, blonde for a change, is pert as Adrienne; Jeremie Renier, as Jeremie, makes his excuses credibly. Alice de Lencquesaing is Sylvie, the teenager we all know and are obliged to understand.
As writer, Assayas knows how to elide. He never trudges through trite scenes that other writers might think necessary. At the end of the first sequence, we see Helene's family leave her house; in the next sequence in Paris, an unspecified time later, Frederic happens to mention something that happened after Helene's death. We have been spared the deathbed, the funeral, and so on. Later, we suddenly see Frederic in the detective's office discussing Sylvie's drug arrest. All the mere data--the discovery of Sylvie's pot, the arrest, the call to her father, all things we can immediately infer--are omitted. (Hitchcock once said that film is life with the boring bits left out.)
But what Assayas concentrates on he directs with distinction. Movement, of characters and camera, is crucial to him. Even in a room, we seem always to be traveling forward. A small touch shows his impatience with stasis: when the two brothers have coffee in a cafe, Assayas has one of them go to the counter and order the coffee rather than wait for a waiter. In the scenes where the siblings discuss their differences, he uses his camera in a mood of curiosity rather than explication. He makes us want to hear. Some silent moments speak, too. At the end of the opening section, Helene bids goodbye to her family outside her house. The cars leave. Then she turns, faces the now-empty house, and walks slowly up the steps. She seems to be accepting the passage of time, even accepting mortality. It is simple and beautiful. Near the end, old Eloise, the servant, comes to look at the house after it is sold, denuded, and locked. She looks in the windows, particularly at the kitchen where she spent so many of her years. She says nothing, she does nothing. She just looks in for a bit. With touches like these, Assayas makes the house itself a character moving from one era to another.
Has photography affected history? When a historian sits down to write about an event that happened after the invention of the camera, do the pictures that he knows affect his writing about the matter? Does post-camera historiography differ intrinsically from work about pre-camera times? The question persists, and it virtually brims out of a documentary called Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. (The name Burma, rather than the latter-day Myanmar, is used throughout.)
VJ stands for video journalist. The film consists, for the most part, of footage shot by such journalists during the massive anti-government protests in Rangoon in September 2007. The government, military and brutal, had jacked up prices on important items, and the people, in poor shape anyway, poured onto the streets, an estimated 100,000 of them. In a day or so they were joined by several thousand Buddhist monks, calm but firm in their saffron robes.
Street protests everywhere in the world are the daily bread of television news. This protest was different from most, not just because a religious order had joined it but because the government was known to be harsh. Everyone who protested in Rangoon that September knew what he or she was risking. Some lost their lives. Many of the monks have simply disappeared.
Much of the film is shot at odd angles and moves jaggedly. It is grabbed footage. The video journalists had to carry their cameras hidden in bags to avoid arrest and whipped them out when they could. It is all awesome and frightening. Some short patches were subsequently added to the film, just for clarification--conversations and arrangements--but there is never any question of what was shot during the struggle. The additions and the editing were done by the Danish director Anders Ostergaard.
One moment is luminous. A crowd surges past guards to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and who had been under house arrest for a total of thirteen years. When she comes out to her gate to greet people, the principal video journalist, whose voice we hear throughout, cannot squeeze close. He gets a long shot of her. In editing the picture, Ostergaard cut to more and more enlarged views of her face until it fills the screen, though somewhat blurred. Like the prospect of justice.
The government was trying to mask or conceal these protests, but the VJs were eager to inform the world. Somehow footage was smuggled out and was telecast. The U.N. condemned the Burmese regime, and the United States tightened the sanctions that were already in place. (We see President Bush condemning the repressions and the killings.) But, though Burma is still smoldering, the government is still there.
Eventually, a film of this kind--even nightly television snips much like it-- surely has more than immediate informational value. Can anyone now write a history of latter-day Burma without thinking of these angry brave images? Historians are not always vivid writers, but don't these faces, these scuffles, these military assaults, affect their work? How do these images make a historian's writing different from that of writers on the further past? The Rangoon VJs may have had such matters in mind when they smuggled out their footage.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann