“I don’t know whether Summer Hours is a summing up of everything that preceded it, but it does recapitulate a lot of things at a moment when I felt the need to do so. Likewise Disorder, my first film, was a sort of matrix, an intimate self-portrait of that time in my life: it represented everything I knew about the world up to that point.”
– Olivier Assayas (1)
Olivier Assayas’ L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008) is the work of an artist at the height of his powers. It is the culmination of nearly 40 years of reflection and research into the value of art and artistic practice. This value, for Assayas, originates in the artist’s disposition towards the artwork and world, which is to say in the relationship the artist establishes, through his chosen artistic medium, between self and world; for the artwork is an expression of the artist’s immersion or belonging to world. (As the filmmaker once said, “To me, movies should not be about other movies. They should be about your experience of life.” ) Later, the artwork accrues additional value, or substance, through its recipients, who reactivate the work and give it a new purpose; invent new ways of relating the work to the world based on their own experience, their own perspective. Cinema is particularly interesting in this regard because it doesn’t simply have an artist, at one end, and a recipient, at the other. Between these two points, a number of other participants – technicians, actors – become involved in the artistic process, the coming-into-being of the artwork. When we refer to the material substrate of film we must therefore consider not only the technology that makes moving images possible, but also the various entities or figures on set that bring the work to life, for they too serve as vehicles, as mediums, for the development of ideas and emotions. It is this multiply-tiered process, with its social dimension, that intrigued Assayas and precipitated his shift from painting, which was his primary means of artistic expression from the age of 15 to 25, to cinema (3).
His first short, Copyright, was completed in 1979. It was followed by several more, which were made at a time when Assayas also began writing film criticism for Cahiers du cinéma. (His contributions to the journal include a special issue on Hong Kong cinema in 1984.) Assayas eventually directed his first feature Désordre (Disorder) in 1986. Over the next 20 years he would complete another ten features, along with a number of shorts and documentaries, prior to beginning work on the project that became L’Heure d’été. Each of these films would allow Assayas to refine his approach to cinema, modifying in the process his understanding of its force and power, for the cinema doesn’t yield all its secrets at once (or once and for all). What is required is tenacity, commitment, patience and intelligence; qualities that Assayas’ oeuvre demonstrates in abundance. In L’Heure d’été, the question of art, its purpose and value, is foregrounded, yet it never feels pretentious or contrived. This is perhaps the result of the organic way the film developed or evolved, as well as the maturity of the filmmaker at a moment in his life when he is fully prepared to deal with such topics, and at a number of different levels, for the film is not only about the purpose or value of art; it is a demonstration of this purpose or value.
L’Heure d’été began as a commission. Assayas was one of several directors approached by the Musée d’Orsay to make a short film to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary. (The museum opened in 1986.) Assayas immediately accepted the invite, eager to make a film that would allow him to return to French soil, after the more global concerns of works like demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007). His initial idea was to chart the stages through which the Musée d’Orsay procures a private art collection, transplanting the various artworks from the messy, everyday world of its previous owners to the rarefied space of the museum, where it will now exist, for better or for worse, as an artwork amongst other artworks. “I wanted” – he explains – “to talk about how art is born from life and gets embalmed in museums. I like museums but the pieces in them are in a zoo. When they are made, they live, breathe and exist with the world. The museum takes their light away.” (4) When funding for the Musée d’Orsay commission failed to materialise, Assayas decided to proceed with the project without their financial assistance (5). He had already realised anyway, as he developed the script, that the idea for the film was probably going to require something more ambitious in length and scale than the original commission would have allowed. “I realized that in order to deal with how objects end up in the museum I’d have to deal with what their life was and how they were sold, how they played a part in the lives of individuals and how gradually they came on the market and from the market ended up in the museum.” (6) The basis of the film’s narrative is found in this description.
An additional factor came into play as the project developed: the ailing health of Assayas’ own mother, the fashion designer Catherine de Károlyi. Károlyi, whose father was the Hungarian painter Tibor Pólya, passed away a few months before the shooting of L’Heure d’été would begin, and it is clear that she was on his mind as he wrote the script, along with the work of his grandfather. (Assayas is involved in Pólya’s estate and the granting of permissions to museums and galleries to exhibit his work.) It is these elements that give L’Heure d’été an “autobiographical” dimension and link this film to earlier Assayas works such as L’Eau froide (Cold Water, 1994) and Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September, 1998). This autobiographical dimension shouldn’t be taken too literally though or given an inordinate amount of weight; it is simply one of the elements that went into the project. At some point, the material must still pass through the hands of Assayas’ collaborators, who must give it their own meaning or significance. The filmmaker, for his part, has suggested that L’Heure d’été can also be seen as an epilogue of sorts to another work, Les Destinées sentimentales (2000), the only film he has made adapted from an external source; in this case, a novel by Jacques Chardonne (7). It is telling though that the link Assayas forges between Les Destinées sentimentales and L’Heure d’été is related not only to possible similarities between the characters or plots of the two films but also to the fact that they share a cinematographer (Eric Gautier), an editor (Luc Barnier), and a number of the same actors: Charles Berling, Valérie Bonneton, Dominique Reymond and Jean-Baptiste Malarte. This list of actors, Assayas has suggested, might be extended as well if we were to include Emile Berling and Alice de Lencquesaing, who play, in L’Heure d’été, the teenage children of Frédéric and Lisa Marly; it is these two characters who take centre stage in the marvellous coda that concludes the film. For as Assayas would explain to one of his interviewers, while Emile and Alice do not physically appear in Les Destinées sentimentales, they were often present, as the children of the actors Charles Berling and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, on the set of the earlier film, a part of the ambience or atmosphere that played an essential role in the making of Les Destinées sentimentales. L’Heure d’été is thus a reunion of sorts: a gathering of friends and family (literally so, in the case of Charles and Emile Berling) who come together to exchange ideas and make a film. Of course, in the end, it is the filmmaker who must determine the form the finished work will take, who must find a way not only to document an adventure (the making of a film) but also to transform it into a film, which is to say a work of art. It is only then that others can also participate in the work and demonstrate the relevance of its themes; the manner in which it transforms its ideas into a gesture, a style, a mode of being.
I can think of no more humble or beautiful affirmation of art than the final set of images with which L’Heure d’été concludes. The reader might object, since the final images are not of artworks per se but of life: life at its simplest, most joyous; life as it is enjoyed by two teenagers, Sylvie and her boyfriend, in the bloom of youth. But, in fact, what we are viewing is life at its most fleeting, as it is transformed into art, life as it is transformed into an image; a transient moment in the life of two characters, two actors, that will be relived – as though it were happening for the first time – with every screening of L’Heure d’été. The denouement doesn’t replace art with life; rather, it shows us the intimate bond that conjoins one to the other.
1. Assayas quoted in Emanuel Levy, “Summer Hours: Interview with Director Olivier Assayas”, EL: EmanuelLevy, Cinema 24/7 20 December 2009:http://emanuellevy.com/interviews/summer-hours-interview-with-director-olivier-assayas-8/.
2. Assayas quoted in Kent Jones, “Westway to the World”, Olivier Assayas, ed. Jones, Austrian Film Museum, Vienna, 2012, p. 9.
3. In a marvellous essay addressed to Alice Debord, Assayas makes clear the central importance for him not of the finished work, the completed film, but the process of making a film, particularly the so-called “production” stage, where the actors and crew come together to shoot the film. It is at this stage that we find, in potential, a form of non-alienated labour, in which each individual has the ability to “invest his own talent, his beliefs and his energy, in exchange for the intensity proper to moments of a life truly lived.” See Assayas, A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, trans. Adrian Martin and Rachel Zerner, Austrian Film Museum, Vienna, 2012, p. 69.
4. Assayas quoted in Levy.
5. Another filmmaker approached by the Musée d’Orsay was the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who was the subject of a documentary that Assayas made in 1997: HHH – Un portrait de Hou Hsiao-Hsien. (It’s not clear to me whether it was Assayas who suggested the filmmaker to the museum, or whether it was someone else’s idea, or even a coincidence, that both were invited to participate in this project.) Like Assayas, Hou would manage to find alternative founding sources to turn his idea into a feature film. In Hou’s case, the result would be his 2007 film Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon,2007).
6. Assayas quoted in Eric Hynes, “The Legacy: An Interview with Olivier Assayas”, Reverse Shot 24: http://www.reverseshot.com/article/interview_olivier_assayas_0.
7. Les Destinées sentimentales also happens to be the only feature Assayas has made in which the screenwriting credit is shared. All of his other features – and this includes the three works Assayas has made since L’Heure d’été – are the result of original scripts that Assayas developed on his own. He has explained in interviews that this belief that the idea for a film must originate with its maker came from his experiences as a painter. “I could not imagine”, he says, “being the kind of filmmaker that directed someone else’s screenplay. To me, that is not what art is about.” See Brian Price and Meghan Sutherland, “On Debord, Then and Now: An Interview with Olivier Assayas”, World Picture Journal 1, Spring 2008: http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/World%20Picture/WP_1.1/Assayas. At the same time, Assayas would come to realise that a script is merely the starting point of the production process: you begin with a script and end with a film.
L’Heure d’été/Summer Hours (2008 France 103 mins)
Prod Co: MK2 Productions/France 3 Cinéma Prod: Charles Gillbert, Marin Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz Dir, Scr: Olivier Assayas Phot: Eric Gautier Ed: Luc Barnier Art Dir: Fanny Stauff
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valérie Bonneton