Olivier Assayas’ beautiful looking film is typically French in many ways. There’s the bucolic family summer place, where all gather periodically – scenes of which are warm and lovely. The characters are intelligent, and grown-up. Have points of view, which they can express reasonably. No overgrown juvies here. No stunted growth.
And then there are the actors who play these roles: Edith Scob who plays 75-year old family matriarch Helene, is actually 71, but looks to be about 60. A good looking 60. Must be the wine.
Juliette Binoche is the Americanized sibling, a woman of artistic and business talents. Jérémie Renier (Jérémie) is her brother, the global businessman. He works in Shanghai and will be moving the family there permanently. Charles Berling (Frédéric) is the brother who still works and lives in France. All good, reasonable people, with different points of view.
The story? It’s about a house, really. Or about the place the house holds for the extended family. Helene is the niece (and probable lover) of an artist of minor note (Paul Berthier), now deceased, who was also a collector. Much on Helene’s mind as she ages is the disposition of the house, the art objects, and the memories. Frederic doesn’t want to hear it, but she wants to talk about the break up of the estate. She foresees the end of an era. Frederic is resistant to the notion, but after her death he sees that she was the more objective. The house and all the possessions must be sold.
There are some truly wonderful scenes. Helene and Frederic’s talk at the last gathering. The siblings (and their spouses) gathering to discuss the hard decisions after Helene’s death.
But the final one and a beautiful coda to the film, is a party thrown at the near empty house, just before it is to be sold. A party not thrown by Helene’s children (who have all rushed along back to their busy lives). No, this party is thrown by their children and their children’s friends. It’s raucous and alive, it looks to the future, it rejoices – yet there is a moment of nostalgia for Frederic and Lisa’s kids. They were the ones who might have lost the most, since they had the best chance to someday come to appreciate what they all had.
But it’s as a meditation on memories and the objects that trigger them where the film really soars. If you think of things passed down from one generation to the next, the ‘things’ are passed down, but what made them personal is mostly lost. We each have to make our own memories. Shared ones are very precious, and shared ones across generations are extremely fragile. Helene’s housekeeper is allowed to take a personal object, something that would remind her of Helene. She takes a flower vase, because she assumes it is of little value and didn’t want to take ‘advantage.’ She tells her son that she took the vase because it should be filled with flowers. That’s its function. Not to sit in a museum somewhere. And it will remind her of Helene. The vase is, of course, the matched pair to a rare vase bequeathed to the Musee d’Orsay. To the housekeeper it is not just a flower vase, and certainly not a rare objet d’art. It is most of all a memory of Helene and their years together.