On June 9th, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of the New York Times published ‘The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century,‘ a list of films that are “destined to be the classics of the future.” Because I read almost every review the two write, I went through the list and noted down films I haven’t seen that I’d like to see now that they’re meant for even more greatness. A few hours later, the marketing team at TIFF reached out with news of a new Summer-long complete retrospective — the first in 15 years — of the French master, Olivier Assayas whose 2008 film, Summer Hours, graced number #9 on NYT’s list and on top of my to-watch list. What are the chances!
Not all coincidences, it is said, are interesting. Considering that Assayas has long been synonymous with post-1968 generation of French cinema that deal with adolescence, political dissent, terrorism, and globalization, and that Summer Hours won numerous critics’ award around the world, perhaps this particular coincidence falls into the not very interesting category. Yet, it is, nevertheless, a fortuitous one, as I now have the chance to spread the news on TIFF’s ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas.‘
Olivier Assays was a film-critic for France’s Cahiers du cinéma, the prominent film magazine founded by André Bazin, before he became a director. Though he worked both as a director and screenwriter for numerous short and feature-length films alongside film giants like André Téchiné starting in 1978, Cold Water, released in 1994, is considered to be his breakthrough film as it was screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Assayas has since established himself as a distinguished voice among contemporary filmmakers.
Assayas’s oeuvre is marked by the variety of genres. His 1996 satire Irma Vep about an actress (Maggie Cheung) and a failing director who wants to recreate Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic Les Vampires is a strange and fascinating homage to the filmmaker and Hong Kong cinema. Sentimental Destinies (2000) is a costume drama set in the earl 20th centuries, concerning a Protestant minister. And with Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayays forayed into noir and thriller. More recently, with Carlos (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Personal Shopper (2016), which won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Assayas has become a globetrotter. With each genre, however, it is easy to see Assayas’s search for his vision. Encompassing his oeuvre is his rumination on films, film history, and issues of identity in the face of larger disorienting cultural, economic, and political forces.
Summer Hours is interesting in that, for many who’ve come to know Assayas through Carlos and Personal Shopper, it offers a quieter and lyrical side of his oeuvre. The film begins with the 75th birthday of Helene (Édith Scob). Her three children, Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jérémie Renier) gather in Helene’s home outside Paris to celebrate. Soon, Helene dies and leaves the house and her all-important art-nouveau furniture along with her inheritance from her famous artist uncle to her children. What ensues is a series of scenes and dealings with practical matters in which what holds a family together becomes increasingly vague; what was once thought to be a common ground — the house, both literally and figuratively — becomes a point of tension as money, emotions, and personal histories come into play. The center, however contentious and insufficient it had been prior to Helene’s death, does not hold once she is gone. Jeremie moves permanently to Shanghai and Adrienne to New York. Frederic, the only one left in France, struggles to realign himself as the new, albeit reluctant, center of his family of four.
Just next to the adult world of lawyers and contracts, Helene’s grandchildren lead, mostly unseen, entirely different lives. Shown Corot’s works nonchalantly hanging in his grandmother’s house, Frederic’s eldest son responds, “Well, it’s another era.” When Frederic is in the middle of closing a deal with regards to Helene’s furniture, his daughter, Sylvie, is caught shoplifting. That the film ends not in the adult world but with the children speaks to Assayas’s brilliance and vision. The movie that began with Helene and the art or artifacts of her life turns to one concerned with the disorder inherent in a family and becomes one about generations and youth, continuity and the lack thereof in families, cultures, and societies.
As with all great themes in film, family and adolescence and identity are materials that are visited without every really exhausting them. And Assayas’s continually revisits them from unexpected avenues.
As part of TIFF’s ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ Assayas will make four in-person appearances to introduce four of his films: Cold Water, Clean, Le Diable Probablement, and Le Pélican. It is also a chance to see 35mm prints of many of his films, including Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Something in the Air. Finally, it is also a chance to see HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien, Assayas’s documentary of the great Taiwanese director (A Time to Live and a Time to Die by Hou Hsiao-hsien is also a part of the retrospective). The retrospective begins on June 22nd and runs through August 20th.