After their mother dies, three siblings must decide what to do with her estate in "Summer Hours." (IFC Films)
A sweet pearl of a French film, "Summer Hours" may work as a perfect antidote for those seeking refuge from the summer blockbuster season.
Going up against all that is mainstream-sacred, director-writer Olivier Assayas, who offers up a film with little plot in which the characters are defined -- to the extent they actually are defined -- by fleeting moments and awkward decisions. Nothing stands central in this film except the passing of a life and the expected erosion of tradition.
The movie begins with three grown siblings visiting their 70-year-old mother Helene (Edith Scob) at her estate near a small village in France. Frederic (Charles Berling) is an economist in Paris, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer in New York and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) markets sports shoes in Asia. The home is filled with expensive art works and Helene wants to talk to Frederic about what will become of her possessions when she dies, even though he wants nothing to do with the conversation.
But die she does, eventually, and Frederic is surprised to learn neither his brother nor sister want to retain the house or its works. So the business of dismantling the world their mother built begins.
And that's about it. Nothing startling happens, the film simply explores the too-common experience of redistributing a life's accumulations. Yet without ever forcing the issue, Assayas lets the passing of the home reflect everything from modern globalization to the transparency of familial ties and the inevitable fade of a French lifestyle.
"Summer Hours" is soft and contemplative, yet it's also strong reminder that film's magic doesn't have to be loud to be compelling.