Never before have I heard of a film being commissioned by a museum unless it was some kind of documentary overview about an artist or collection. In fact, I didn’t order “Summer Hours” because of that -- didn’t find out until after I looked up the movie on the Internet. The museum wanted a fictional and calm reflection about the dispersal of art collections, both those created by the artist and those collected over the years. They got it, very gracefully done.
The issue is a sharp one for me because of my age -- at seventy-one I’m the remaining wife of four women married to Bob Scriver (b. 1914). His peers in the category of Western artists are now slipping away. The dispersal of Harry Jackson’s personal collection is scheduled at the next Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. firstname.lastname@example.org I have special sympathies for Harry, who was like a younger and “classier” version of Bob Scriver, but I’ll save all that for another blog.
The larger issue is how to think about collections as such. The set-up in the movie is that a woman, very elegant and thoughtful, has three children. She has been the guardian of her uncle’s estate. The uncle was a fine and famous artist, closeted gay and yet a lover of this woman. She has clear ideas about what should happen to the house and the objects, which include useful household items: a desk and chair, an armoire, art glass vases.
They are used -- in fact, some of the things in the bottom of the armoire, like cleaning supplies, may constitute mis-use. Of course, every time a glass vase is used, it is endangered. The elderly housekeeper has no notion of their value and, in fact, considers them ugly, but finds one useful for the large bouquets cut on the grounds. The theme of “brokenness” and wear are also presented by an ordinary plastic shopping bog unceremoniously containing fragments of a broken Degas figure, one of the sturdy ballerinas, which the family thinks is irreparable but does not throw out.
The three children are set up to represent three points of view: the daughter now lives in America and is about to marry. Some of the objects, silver, mean something to her and she takes them. A set of sketchbooks also matter to her but she wants to sell them at Christies and fancies she knows their value and how to handle it all, because she is an art designer. She turns out NOT to know. France blocks the sketch books from being exported from the country because they are classified as national treasures. Christies is slammed as likely to maximize profit by tearing out the pages of the books, which are meant to stay together and intact.
One brother represents hard-headed practicality and simply wants to convert everything to cash because he will be living in China, has three children to raise, and takes a management point of view, since that’s his occupation.
The other brother, who lives nearby and is what one might call an “ironic economist” -- that is, he is sentimental and protective but not reactionary -- must do the actual business, painful as it is. His encounters with the lawyers, the museum board, the curators, the housekeeper, are our guides.
One of the interesting members of the museum board argues against acquiring the Art Moderne desk and chair, even though they’ve been borrowed for exhibit earlier and at that time there was interest in acquiring them permanently. “Why acquire them only to lock them up where no one sees them and they quietly molder in the dark?” he asks. (Oh, yes. Bob Scriver’s work is locked up in warehouses.) In the end they are accepted and exhibited, but the third brother and his wife ask each other if the sterile presentation is really how such a familiar and useful piece of their lives should be honored. Shouldn’t someone still be writing at that desk?
The ultimate and sheltering “art” is the great house itself with its hillside grounds full of paths down to a river. The movie begins with the joyful screaming and scrambling of the grandchildren romping everywhere. It ends with the same thing except that the children are now young adults and they are bursting with music, beer and pot in a big crowd of friends. Is a careless house like this a better place for art than a careful and serene museum? The beautiful things have all been used, taken into memory, made carriers of many happy times. But I’m reminded of a relevant novel, “The Bowl Is Already Broken” which seeks to discover who is responsible for dropping a priceless ancient Chinese porcelain bowl, and what the implications might be. The point is that loss is inevitable.
And then, embracing the house, the art, the lives of the people, here is this film! Not much deep and bruising inquiry into private lives. We never even SEE the uncle, only his representative the niece, so we never really know how he came to acquire the house or even how he became an artist. Since the most valuable objects are by other artists, we assume he didn’t leave a fortune and we don’t really know what his work was like. This is quite different from the usual sort of film about art. It’s cool, philosophical, not a study of fraught genius, but rather a reflection on what to do with what has been gathered together.
Museums become a little more crowded all the time. Taste changes so the problem of what to discard -- something HAS to be discarded or the museums will become the size of football fields -- becomes highly contentious. “De-accessioning” is the dodge-ball term for dumping out what the current administration thinks is out of favor. And the government often finds it politically worth meddling with.
In the end I think that “Summer Hours” encourages us to live in the moment, enjoy what we have without smothering the next generation, drink today’s wine from the most elegant stemware and pass canapés on the loveliest silver trays, but don’t hesitate to jam autumn’s asters unsorted into a capacious art glass vase. Still, one can’t help respecting and yearning to preserve the goals of that elegant, upright, slender, silver-haired niece who keeps her secrets but is willing to place worthy art where it will be appreciated.
“Summer Hours (French: L'Heure d'été) is a 2008 French drama film directed by Olivier Assayas. It is the second in a series of films produced by Musée d'Orsay, after The Flight of the Red Balloon.”