French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours was called “a masterpiece” by A. O. Scott in The New York Times. Entertainment Weekly’s respected critic Lisa Schwarzman gave it an A. In its first weekend, it grossed $24,100 per theater (there were only two), which made it the most promising opening of a “specialty” film in months. It now has expanded to the 10 top markets and will be in 25 by the end of May, according to indieWIRE.
But you didn’t need to hunt for a theater to see Summer Hours. It was simultaneously available at IFC Films on Demand (carried by Time Warner and Cablevision in the New York metropolitan area) for $6.95 per 24 hours. In the past six months, it featured Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che, about the Cuban revolutionary (“An epic,” said Scott of the New York Times); Gomorrah, a Mafia portrait that Manohla Dargis in the Times said was “corrosive and ferociously unsentimental”; and Hunger, an account of hunger strikers during the Irish civil strife, which Scott wrote was “calm, deliberate . . . unnerving.” At the Cannes Film Festival last week, IFC secured distribution rights to Lars von Trier’s scandalous Antichrist, which starts with a child falling to death from an upper-story window and goes downhill from there, but Dargis reports, “this impossible movie kept me hooked from start to finish.”
As independent-film theaters are increasingly pushed off the cinema landscape by hulking multiplexes, IFC has created an on-demand cable service comprehensive enough to satiate the persnickety film snob in all of us.
Right now, there are six movies on offer from IFC Films on Demand that are also in theaters, and an additional 18 separately billed as coming direct from festivals. In all, there will be about 100 films shown this year through the service. And it is clear that the ambition and quality of the movies selected for simultaneous release on-demand and in theaters is growing. “Cannes was quiet,” the Economist reported, “but for independent film makers,” the magazine says, “the action increasingly takes place not on the French Riviera but in American living rooms. Tricky, intelligent films are finding a home.” IFC executives say their share from on-demand sales per customer is about equal to that from ticket prices. Most major distributors and theaters still avoid the concept, believing that it undermines their overall box office. But if time and/or proximity to downtown theaters limit your options for seeing a movie like Summer Hours, IFC Film on Demand is your friend. Long may it thrive.
Summer Hours is a movie of pointillist precision about a particular French family that also makes universal observations about the interplay of life choices, work, and culture. A matriarch, Helene Berthier (Edith Scob), gathers her three grown children at their house in the countryside for what, it is easy to forecast, will be the last time. They are her eldest, Frederic (Charles Berling), a Paris-based economics professor with a wife and two children; a daughter, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), who is a designer living in New York with an American fiancé; and the youngest, Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), who is in China working for a sneaker company with his wife and three children. The narrative is in their handling of the house and its contents.
The characters play their parts on the screen and in the family with subtlety. The eldest wants to maintain the house; the others, having dispersed themselves physically and psychologically, are prepared—even eager—to sell the goods, which include heirlooms and artifacts good enough to be displayed in the Musee d’Orsay, where some of them end up. What the film says about France is that its culture and identity are being diluted by the impact of global business forces and styles heavily influenced by the United States, an assault that no invader could ever sustain for very long. The economist has a teenage daughter whose final foray to the homestead is a party with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, which could be happening anywhere in the contemporary youth universe of the developed world, embedded in a particularly French and fading backdrop.
The real power of the film is in the emotional and personal conflict that comes from disassembling a family’s legacy; all of the accumulated objects and the relationships that caused them to be gathered. This is Assayas’ 12th fiction film, and critics who know his work well can fit it into the patterns of his previous work.
“Time is actually the most important raw material in Mr. Assayas’ cinema,” Dennis Lim wrote in a New York Times essay. “Few filmmakers have his feel for the flux and transience of life as we live it and his movies are especially eloquent in depicting the passage of time.... But the idea of time as it applies within families and across generations, fraught with the pain of loss and the weight of the past, was a more daunting proposition.”
Assayas accomplishes the story without melodrama, harrowing rescues, or shattering grief. The cumulative sense is melancholy about the unraveling of the family’s shared possessions and the secrets they concealed as their lives, irreversibly, move elsewhere.
In its beautiful photography of people, colors, and moods (the work of cinematographer Eric Gautier), Summer Hours creates an atmosphere both gentle and judgmental. The siblings are so well drawn that they represent roles most of us play in our own families in a film that is scrupulously precise about one family. Summer Hours is well worth seeking out, which turns out to be an easy task at IFC Films on Demand.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post.