A searingly honest chapter in the life of an unruly foster child, Francois, who as the film begins, is handed back to Social Services by a youngish married couple who can’t bear his egregious misbehavior— stealing, fighting, hurting animals (some of which is tough to watch). From there, Pialat follows Francois into the home of the Thierry‘s, a much older husband and wife, who already have one foster child, an older boy, and also live with the wife’s elderly mother.
It bears resemblance to The 400 Blows as a heartbreaking, naturalistic, and semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story from a French auteur. Michel Terrazon, who plays Francois, even looks quite like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Their mischievous smirks are remarkably alike, and God can only imagine what kind of shit they’d pull if Francois and Antoine existed in the same world and met each other. It also brought the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike to mind.
Pialat doesn’t indict anyone for failing Francois or any of the other foster children we see getting shuttled around, some of whom are so devastatingly young and vulnerable (and adorable), nor does he excuse any of Francois’ heinous wrongdoing. He simply observes, giving equal aesthetic treatment to moments of kindness, pain, bonding, and separation. The Thierry’s, though sometimes tough, are patient, loving people who see the good and sweetness beneath by Francois’ volatile temperament; his growing close with Grandma Thierry is enormously touching. The ending hurts, but it’s in keeping with the film’s piercingly truthful beauty.
“Let the play begin”, says a narrator as the camera pushes toward the window of a house from outside, while inside, a woman opens the window’s curtain. It marks the beginning of the film as well as Bergman’s career, this being his debut, and evident immediately is an idea that would run throughout his filmography: life as theater.
About that narration: it’s not great. Neither is the movie in general, but it’s fine, and better than its reputation suggests. It’s about 18 year-old Nelly and her foster mother, whose quiet, small-town lives are upended when Nelly’s biological mother arrives suddenly, and lures Nelly away to the city with the promise of a job and urban pleasures. Nelly’s foster mother is ill and devastated to see Nelly go, and things go awry for Nelly when she gets mixed up with her biological mother’s younger lover.
Some characters are much better developed than others, and the tone can be inconsistent. Bergman reveals a natural sense for composition though, and the film’s visual appeal took me far enough. A flawed but still interesting movie about maternal grief and disillusionment in young adulthood.
Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama, a ravishing, kabuki-styled period drama from 1958, considers such themes as mortality, aging, and tradition through a lens of radiant artifice and theatricality. At the story’s center is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a stooped, compulsively selfless woman just shy of seventy, the age at which the elderly in her secluded mountain community are to be taken by a family member to the local Mount Narayama and left to die. Because of the perennial scarcity of food in her village, where Orin lives with her widowed, middle-aged son Tasuhei (Teiji Takahashi) and greedy, uncaring grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), the custom of parricide is upheld as a difficult but necessary means of ensuring there’s enough to go around for the younger generations. Not everyone in the community is like Orin though. She has things to accomplish before making her climb – namely, she wants to find a new wife for her son – but she otherwise is calm, even cheery, having made peace with her nearing fate.
The first person we see in the film is not Orin or one of her fellow villagers, however, but rather a black masked, centrally framed narrator, who faces the camera and introduces the movie and the legend on which it’s based. Save for the film’s bracing final shots, The Ballad of Narayama is set entirely on luminous, intricately crafted studio soundstages, its narrative told in the elaborately stylized tradition of kabuki theater. After his introduction, the narrator remains off-screen, and in a wobbly, mournfully singsong voice, describes and comments on the tragic narrative as it unfolds. As seasons pass and the day of Orin’s hike to Narayama approaches, curtains and sets are maneuvered to reflect both changes in setting and shifts in mood. Stage lighting is similarly manipulated in a conspicuous fashion, creating images of dramatic, expressive beauty. In one especially striking sequence, set around dusk, a villager is caught stealing food and violently punished by a mob of his neighbors. The sky takes on a scorching hot pink hue as anger erupts, contrasting with a haunting shade of green that dimly lights the homes and faces of villagers as they gather around the hungry culprit.
More than just a style employed for the sake of visual extravagance, Kinoshita’s patently artificial mise-en-scène is essential to The Ballad of Narayama’s great emotional power. From the gorgeously colorful painted backgrounds of mountainous landscapes, to the staginess of the village’s log structures, the theatricality puts us at a slight remove from the somber, sometimes harrowing events as we follow Orin in her final days. Rather than forcefully envelop us in the hardship and social frictions that define Orin’s world, Kinoshita’s approach creates a space for contemplation about time’s inevitable passage and the value of sacrifice. It’s no spoiler to say that Orin does, in fact, eventually make her journey to Narayama. Fog hugs the ground as her son brings her up on his back, and just as Orin hoped it would, snow begins to fall shortly after she reaches the top. Rendered in beautiful shades of gray and white, the scene is resonant not in spite of, but because of its stylish artifice.
To say it’s about an unhappily married couple coming undone isn’t exactly a fair synopsis, as that suggests Rossellini spends the runtime building up to Katherine and Alex openly acknowledging their marital dissatisfaction and acting on it. In fact, and to my surprise, Rossellini quickly establishes that these bourgeois Brits have little passion for each other anymore. Alex talks of being “bored” during the opening car ride, and Katherine remarks in the following scene in their hotel room that they don’t really know each other at all. All it took was a break from domesticity and routine – what was meant to be a business trip in Naples with a couple days of relaxation tacked on – for their alienation from one another to be thrown in sharp relief.
And so they spend their Neapolitan sojourn mostly apart instead of together. Katherine ventures out alone to see the sights – sculptures at the museum, catacombs, volcanic activity at Mount Vesuvius – in moody, potent sequences, some of the film’s best. Evocative of history, death, and the mysteries of the earth, the marble figures, rows of skulls, and eddies of volcanic smoke stir up something in Katherine, as if they’re bringing her to the cusp of a spiritual or emotional breakthrough. Alex, meanwhile, hits the bars and eyes local women. I do wonder if Rossellini errs in showing his cards and revealing that he sides with Katherine; Alex’s leering is less flattering than anything we see Katherine do with her time alone. Nights together reveal simmering jealousies and bitterness.
The story approaches its emotional apex during Katherine and Alex’s lone outing together to see the excavation of two skeletons, lovers entombed by ash after Vesuvius erupted long ago. A symbol of love that endured until the moment it was swallowed by darkness. It prompts an epiphany to manifest in the finale that, while far too abrupt, sees them briefly driven apart but finding each other once again.
In a fleet-footed adventure, two clownish peasants with a comical love-hate relationship (famously the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2) accompany a princess in disguise and her samurai guard on a trek through enemy territory. In exchange, they’ll get a piece of the gold that they help to haul… that is, if they don’t succumb to temptation and try to steal it before journey’s end.
Mostly light in mood, it shows Kurosawa playfully poking fun at human greed and the distrust it can sew between people, making up for a lack of complexity in character with captivating use of widescreen compositions (you wouldn’t know from the splendor of it that this was his first time employing the format). Most memorably striking are the high and low angle shots of the towering, jagged mountain peaks that the titular fortress is nestled between, where the peasants first meet their royal companions.
For laughs, the movie does rely heavily on the peasants quarreling and quickly becoming selfish, but for me, it stopped short of growing tiresome. It’s the blend of comedy and action that makes this a rip-roaring ride. The action is spectacularly staged, from the large set pieces (such as the early sequence in which a mass of imprisoned peasants revolt and flee from their captors) to the more contained confrontations (such as the spear duel between the guard and an old friend turned foe). The latter scene is shot with patience and deliberation, and is another clear inspiration for Star Wars, the spears reminiscent of lightsabers.
Jack, Zack, and Bob: a layabout pimp who isn’t much of a talker, a downbeat DJ whose way with words is buttery smooth, and an Italian tourist with an ever-growing notebook of American idioms, an affection for American poetry, and a less than firm grip on English. A motley trio who land themselves in the Louisiana slammer, which they manage to escape from. This being a Jim Jarmusch movie, however, the prison break isn’t for the sake of thrills or suspense; Down by Law is a cool, languid, funny and fable-like hangout film, with Roberto Benigni’s Bob serving as its crucial ingredient, the spark that along with Robby Müller‘s pristine black-and-white cinematography and John Lurie’s evocative score brings the magic.
Bob might be the foreigner, but Zack and Jack are even more ineffective at meaningful communication. Rather than verbally hash out their beef with each other, they can’t help but get into physical tussles. “Do you say, in English, ‘I look-a at the window’, or do you say, ‘I look-a out the window?’” “Well, in this case, Bob, I’m afraid you gotta say ‘I look at the window.’” Language itself might be the film’s most wonderful motif.
Jim Wilson: Michael, welcome back to my little film forum. I think the last time you joined me was for Summer Hours, back in November. That was a fun talk, but way too long ago. I’ve missed you. How’s life?
Michael Clawson: Hey Jim, I’m glad to be back! It has been too long. Life is busy, but good. The start of a new year is always a more hectic time for me at work, and on top of that, I just moved into a new place, so there’s been a lot going on for the last couple months. What’s new with you?
Jim: New? Very little. People keep building and remodeling houses, so I’m busy, but that’s nothing new.
Contrary to Collokino standards, I’m bringing the film this time. I guess the last one, with Jeff, was my pick, too, but that feels like a special edition, like all my talks with Jeff do.
I’ve wanted to talk about Bruno Dumont’s classic L’humanité for a long time now, and you were courageous enough to humor me. Dumont is a huge favorite of mine. His films always make me feel electrified, even injected, by the visual manifestation of a thought, or a string of thoughts that combine to form an idea, what is a profoundly subjective perspective that isn’t the perspective of any one character, but of the film’s author, who is, in all Dumont films, Bruno Dumont. Had you seen any of his films before this one?
Michael: No, L’humanité is now the only film of Dumont’s that I’ve seen, but I’ve been intrigued by him as a filmmaker for some time, mainly because I get the sense that his work tends to be polarizing. Among a good handful of critics whose opinions and writing I tend to appreciate, I’ve seen euphoric reactions to Dumont movies along with some viscerally negative takes. So I was excited when you selected L’humanité for this Collokino. We haven’t talked about any movie that from my vantage point is as divisive as L’humanité, so this is a cool change of pace.
I recall you saying that along with Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman, you consider Bruno Dumont one of your favorite filmmakers. What role did L’humanité play in catapulting Dumont into your personal canon? Was it your entry point into this filmography, or were you already familiar with him?
Jim: That’s true. Denis, Akerman and Dumont are my top three directors. I honestly can’t remember which was the first Dumont film I watched, since I watched them all in pretty short order, I was so awed by him, but it was certainly one of the first. Camille Claudel, 1915 and Twentynine Palms, along with L’humanité, cemented Dumont as one of those few directors, like Denis and Akerman, whose work I instinctively understand. I think L’humanité gets at a fundamental, albeit uncomfortable, truth about humanity, one that was central to the development of Existentialism in European thought from the middle of the 19th century, but is also very central to Christian thinking, though Dumont strips it mostly of religious references. And since those ideas, sans the Christian applications, have been crucial to my own thinking since I was a teenager, including my passion for French writers and philosophers, L’humanité assumed a secure position in my pantheon of great films from the first time I saw it.
I know that many despise Dumont, and it’s no mystery why, but I think that to those folks he doesn’t make sense, and just comes off as needlessly weird, opaque and shocking, but to me it all makes perfect, and profound, sense. Dumont makes films that come from a very raw and honest place. Like I said before, he doesn’t tell stories so much as he visualizes thoughts and ideas in oftentimes very extreme ways. His is an intensely interior style that isn’t particularly interested in constructing standard narratives.
L’humanité follows a police inspector, Pharaon De Winter, played by the wonderfully enigmatic Emmanuel Schotté, in a small town in northern France, as he investigates the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl, though it’s less about that than Pharaon’s day-to-day life and the life of those few who are closest to him. I’m sure that’s a source of frustration with lots of viewers, who want more of a typical police procedural, and that’s a part of Dumont’s subversive nature. In a crime story, of which many of his films are, he sees less a mystery about who did what to whom, and more a discovery of subtle psychological and philosophical elements in human nature, which are quietly revealed, almost coincidentally, in the unfolding of the investigation.
What did you make of it? Tell me your general impressions.
Michael: Yeah, you can’t really describe the film without calling it a police procedural, but to leave it at that would be highly misleading. It’s a very idiosyncratic film, one that I’ve been characterizing in my head sensibility-wise as like a cross between the working-class realism of a Dardenne brothers movie and the awkward, discomfiting surrealism of Yorgos Lanthimos.
I watched the movie twice, and had two very different reactions to it. After the first viewing, I wasn’t far away in my thinking from the folks who you say find Dumont to be “needlessly weird.” In other words, I found some of the film’s peculiarities grating, and I struggled to make heads or tails of De Winter, both the character as written by Dumont and the performance given by Schotté. All I really saw in him were affectations, the unpleasantness of which was too great for me to empathize with the character’s crisis or for me to care deeply about what Dumont was getting at. I wavered between thinking that Dumont was oblivious to how obnoxiously pitiful De Winter was and thinking that Dumont was going too far out of his way to make the guy a vacant weirdo. The shockingly graphic moments didn’t bother me. I just could not vibe with Dumont’s methods of characterization.
Fortunately, I responded far better on my second viewing. Knowing what I was in for helped me move past what I initially found so off-putting, and view everything through a more conceptual lens. I was surprised to find that I connected with De Winter more meaningfully, especially in the film’s uniquely tender moments. It happened fast too: the second that De Winter faceplants in the mud while running across a field in the opening few minutes, I saw a guy in such shock, so horrified by what he’s just witnessed that he isn’t present enough to even feel his own body falling to ground. I was also much more attuned to and fascinated by the film’s elemental aspects – soil and wind are recurrent motifs – and how Dumont’s interest in human nature intermingles with his attention to the natural world. I also noticed important details that flew right over my head the first time around.
Jim: Lanthimos yes. The Dardennes not quite. Social realism is never much Dumont’s concern.
I’m fascinated by your description of Pharaon’s actions as “affectations”. Affectations are falsehoods, and as such require a standard of genuine to define themselves in contrast to. In the world of this film, what is genuine? Truth is, you know, Dumont found Schotté the way he finds many of his actors, from general auditions he holds among the locals where the film is made. Professional no, but genuine. Schotté’s an eccentric, and Pharaon is Schotté . He may be a concentrated version of himself, but he’s not faking. Dumont has a way of taking anybody and turning them up to eleven, or down to three.
I think if there’s anything Schotté is explicit about, it’s Pharaon’s empathy, for everyone. Let’s be blunt about it. Pharaon is a Christ figure. That he’s an awkward, geeky, maybe stupid man, green-lights him for the role of a martyred messiah in the Christian fashion. Dumont invites you to question that.
I love that you picked up on the elemental themes. Earth is critical, or man’s limited command of it. Images of tilling, sowing, cultivating, and reaping are constant. Tell me about the wind images.
Michael: I did hear about Dumont’s casting process between my two viewings. It’s in an interview on the Criterion disc – I’m guessing you’ve seen it – that he describes the alchemical process of Schotté the actor merging with Pharaon the character. He didn’t want to alter too much of Schotté’s natural behavior – his slow movement, his heavy breathing – but also didn’t want Schotté simply playing himself. It sounds like Dumont is extremely delicate in his direction of actors, taking care to ensure the actor’s natural essence isn’t rubbed out as they bring the character to life.
Listening to Dumont talk about his process and Schotté is part of why I really came around on Pharaon. To your question about affectation, I think it is fair to say that there’s something at least a little eccentric about almost everyone in the movie, so there isn’t any obvious figure that Pharaon’s odd demeanor stands in contrast to. There is something about how realistic Dumont’s world-building is, however, that heightens everything that’s peculiar. That’s why I mention the Dardennes in tandem with Lanthimos, but I won’t hammer on that connection too hard. The working-class milieu and setting is very believable, unlike Lanthimos’ worlds, which are often more clearly fabricated (e.g. The Lobster). It took me some time to adjust to how Dumont is balancing what I would call realism, with genre and elements of the strange and fantastic. Now that I’ve gotten my head around it a little better, I find it pretty great!
Back to the wind and the elements. There are some wonderfully ambiguous moments as Pharaon goes about his investigation and daily life, where first, we see Pharaon looking through a window or out on to an open field, then we get a shot of the landscape and hear the wind passing through it, and then another shot of Pharaon, with what then looks like a subtly contemplative expression on his face. I think these might be moments of recognition for Pharaon. I think he’s analogizing, perhaps unconsciously, the natural world and human nature. The wind is no more escapable than humanity’s worst tendencies.
What do you make of Dumont’s elemental focus? Also, care to introduce Domino and Joseph, and give me your thoughts on Schotté’s relationship with them?
Jim: Sorry, yes, I’m shirking my narrative duties here. Domino, brought to life by Séverine Caneele, is Pharaon’s neighbor, a woman Pharaon is obviously enamored of. It should be pointed out, before going any further, that we learn from others that Pharaon had a girlfriend or wife, and a young child, who both died two years prior. Pharaon never speaks of it, and we know no details about what happened, the implication being that there’s a big grief-filled hole in Pharaon’s life, and Domino’s place in it is complicated by that emotional turmoil. Domino is a strong-willed, impish character, who wields her sex-appeal recklessly, though it’s uncertain how much this confuses or hurts Pharaon. But Domino has a boyfriend, the handsome bus driver Joseph (Philippe Tullier), who is, in every way, Pharaon’s polar opposite. Swaggering, obnoxious and cruel, Joseph not only tolerates Domino’s attachment to Pharaon, but seems to enjoy Pharaon’s third-wheeling presence, if only as a beta-male backdrop to enhance his own virulent virility. Together, the three go out for meals, and take day trips to the beach. It’s an odd friendship, often strained and awkward, for which it’s impossible not to pity Pharaon’s puppyish acquiescence.
I think this is a good place to point out that L’humanité is a film about glances, people looking, observing and inspecting, which speaks directly to the emphasis in Existentialism on the observation from others of the self, the reflexive, subjectively objectifying gaze. Since relationships, in this context, are defined only by individual experience, they are always binary, at least. What the relationship between Pharaon, Domino and Joseph is can’t be measured by a single perspective, but functions more like an eddying current, or wind, if you will. There are any number of great examples of this, especially the scene in which Pharoan watches from an open doorway as Domino and Joseph have sex on the floor. Domino sees him, but doesn’t react. It’s fun to imagine what’s going through their thoughts at that moment. Even Joseph, who sees neither of their gazes, is altered by this objectification. It’s a dynamic you will see constantly in Dumont’s films, the toggling back and forth between subject and object, which aligns him closely with the observational methods of Chantal Akerman, another fervent existential humanist.
Which leads to the distant looks you brought up. Although other characters do it as well, we see Pharaon often staring off into the distance. We see his far-away look, followed by what he’s looking at, which is usually a distant hill. It’s a fascinating device Dumont uses to indicate interiority by pointing the camera in the direction of Pharaon’s stare at a distant externality. When we’re lost in thought, what do we usually do? We stare, often at some distant spot. We fix ourselves in our most inner place by casting our gaze into the distance. Understandably, one might wonder what it is that Pharaon is so insistently gazing at, though the intent is to signal what can’t be seen with a camera, what we can only imagine is going on inside Pharaon’s thoughts.
I’m not avoiding your question about elemental forces, but I think it might serve the conversation best at this point to turn to some of the concrete events of the story, which speak more directly to the film’s central themes around civility, and the sliding scale between good and evil. There’s an early scene in which Pharaon, Domino and Joseph go out to dinner together. From the drive in Joseph’s car to the restaurant to the drive back home, it’s one of the film’s most memorable sequences. What do you see going on there?
Michael: Their drive to the restaurant, with Joseph behind the wheel, Pharaon in the front passenger seat, and Domino in back, ties in with a motif we haven’t mentioned yet: the rural factory town that the story is set in is a conspicuously quiet and empty one, but cars tend to fly down the city streets, especially the road that our three main characters live and hang out on (I found myself wondering if Pharaon’s wife and daughter died in a car accident). In this particular scene, Joseph is recklessly speeding, and slams on the brakes only just before coming to a stop sign, which upsets Pharaon. At the restaurant, all three of them are bothered by some revelers at another table that start heckling and chanting at them, but it’s Joseph who snaps, smacking the table as he yells at the group to knock it off. To be honest, I’m not sure what Dumont might be doing in these scenes besides establishing Joseph as a loose cannon, a guy who’s hot-headed nature could potentially lead him to be violent. What do you make of these scenes?
Jim: Well, this and other key scenes address Dumont’s central concern of the film, as I read it, about civility, or what it means to not only be in, but assist with creating, a civilization. There are two important things at work: aggression and submission. Sorry if this all sounds a bit academic, but it’s just how I understand Dumont. There are two opposing forms of aggression, one that expects good-natured submission – the big table doing that taunting singing thing I’ve seen in other French films, but still don’t fully understand – and another aggressiveness that snarls and attacks – Joseph – expecting shamed submission. The point is the mutually dependent relationship between the two, between aggression and submission, and how that is identifiable in civilizations and how they operate. Notice that the taunting, singing table singles out two women to target, even though there are women at the singing table. It’s a kind of self-effacing aggression that expects to be tolerated, because it’s in good fun, and isn’t frightening or violent, as Joseph’s angry response is. But the submission they result in is the same, as equally debilitating and soul-crushing, as the looks on all the victims’ faces prove. Joseph’s aggressive driving is also a part of the same thing. Remember that the first time we see a speeding vehicle in town is when a tractor trailer tears down the street outside Pharaon’s and Domino’s homes, which insults their sense of civility, but when we’re in Joseph’s car doing the same thing, Domino, at least, is no longer so insulted. She submits to Joseph’s aggression, but not the truck driver’s. I hate being blunt, but Dumont is talking about big societal dynamics around control, and to what citizens are willing to submit.
But I feel like I’m dominating with my pedantry. Michael, please, talk about something that stuck out for you.
Michael: Not too academic for me, I love those ideas.
I’ll mention a couple of moments that I particularly like. The first comes in the process of Pharaon doing some actual police work: one day, he follows two young girls on their route home from school in hopes of finding evidence or clues along the way. He rides their bus with them and follows at a distance after they deboard and begin their walk home through the fields, eventually passing the spot where the victim’s body was discovered. Pharaon stops and stares at a roadside memorial that’s been set up, then suddenly lets out a howl and runs across the field until he comes to a fence. I don’t think there’s anything in the movie that I relate to more than Pharaon’s instinctive reaction here. Pharaon might spend a lot of time with Domino and Joseph because he has feelings towards Domino, but I suspect that hanging out with them also serves as a distraction from thinking about the nauseating crime he’s tasked with solving. When he sees the memorial, his response is an incredibly human one; his anger and sadness towards our capacity for violence is ineffable, so it comes pouring out in a bellow, and he can’t help but want to turn away and run from what he’s seen. I love how it flies in the face of how police detectives are conventionally depicted. They’re always too hardened to be affected by what ghastly crimes they investigate. Not Pharaon.
Another moment I love is when Pharaon and his boss, the police chief, stop at a farm to question someone (I don’t think we even learn who they’re questioning – I’m not sure that it matters). Pharaon steps into the barn by himself to find a mother pig nursing her piglets. He kneels down and gently pets the mother pig. Any way I can think of to describe the scene makes it sound cornier than it actually is. It’s one of a handful of movingly tender moments in the film that function as vital counterpoints to the discomfort and shock we experience elsewhere (Pharaon and Domino hugging is another such scene). It’s not hard to find criticisms of the film that accuse Dumont of doing little more than trying to push our buttons, but the gentler moments clarify that the scope of human experience that he’s interested in is actually quite wide.
There are a bunch of moments that I’m still not sure what to make of and that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. Pharaon embracing the drug dealer who comes into the station for questioning, his trip to psychiatric hospital, his trip to the beach with Domino and Joseph – any specific impressions of these scenes?
Jim: I’d love to talk about any and all of those moments. It occurs to me that many of them, and other instances, can be observed as moments of tactility, including smell, that indicate a common theme in Dumont films about the human animal, or the beast within the man, or, as is literally the case in Li’l Quinquin, the man within the beast.
But since it’s such an outlier, let’s look first at Pharaon’s visit to the psychiatric hospital, as he follows up on a theory that an inmate might have committed the crime. Many of the scenes involving actual police work, or investigating, have an air about them of rote futility, which would go on to epitomize how Dumont depicts police in subsequent films. The trip yields no insights, only another episode of Pharaon’s penchant for effusive empathy, when he watches some patients ambling about on the lawn and he embraces the nurse whose idea it was to pursue that angle in the first place. However, as Pharaon is leaving, he spots Joseph entering the facility. After multiple watches, I still can’t figure out the relevance of this. Any thoughts?
Michael: I’m not exactly sure what Dumont might be getting at in that moment, but Pharaon’s trip to the hospital does strike me as interesting in a few ways. First, I’m struck by how peaceful and secure the facility seems when Pharaon first arrives. It’s a sprawling, beautifully manicured complex made up of a number of brick buildings, with trimmed hedges, flower gardens, and lawns outside that are all pristine. As Pharaon enters the complex and makes his way to the nurse he came to see, he goes through a security gate, then is escorted through a series of rooms and locked doors before finally arriving in a hospital bedroom. None of it stood out to me on first viewing, but as I look back on it, I find Joseph’s coming in through a building side door with apparent ease to be more than a little disconcerting. It’s a breach of this unexpectedly serene space that’s designed to keep its inhabitants inside, because as the nurse tells Pharaon, the facility houses “some crazies” who could be responsible for the crime. The outside world, where people recklessly speed, heckle and embarrass each other, and are barbarically violent, seems far less safe than the hospital. In hindsight, Joseph coming onto the grounds seems like a predator entering a sanctuary. Who’s really protected from who in this situation?
Jim: Well, yes, I think much of what the psychiatric hospital sequence is commenting on is the tendency to point suspicion at marginalized and defenseless members of society for committing horrifying and inexplicable crimes, when they’re no more likely than anyone, if not far less likely. It’s the same thing going on with the Algerian drug-dealer the police haul in for questioning. Same dynamic, same bigoted, fearful targeting of perceived “others”. I’m inclined to think your reading of Joseph’s easy access to the facility might be a cleverly underhanded expression of that inversion of trust by a predatory person of privilege, but since we don’t know the extent of Joseph’s depravity at that point, I’m less than convinced. I guess it will remain the single thing in this film I can’t yet fully get my arms around.
So, let’s return to the Algerian drug-dealer. It’s one of many scenes where we see that Pharaon is an extraordinarily sensate person, as he interrogates the suspect by smelling him. With his hand placed firmly on the back of the man’s neck, Pharaon intimately rubs the suspect’s face with his own, his prominent nose probing the suspect’s skin like an olfactory flashlight. Later, in his office, Pharaon smells his own hand that was holding the man’s neck. I think Dumont gives us two different ways to evaluate this, or maybe different points along a single continuum, but let’s first look at other examples.
In one of the many scenes that take place in front of their homes, as they try to keep cool in the summer heat, Pharaon stands with Domino, engaged in their funny little small-talk. Domino complains about the heat and how she’s “dripping,” indicating her armpit. Pharaon slowly lowers his nose to Domino’s shoulder. She laughs, but understands his eccentricities enough not to be shocked. There are at least two instances I can remember of him laying his hands on vehicles, as if to sense something, once with the bus that ran the fateful route when the girl was attacked, and, just as notably, the back of Joseph’s car when Pharaon see’s him at the psychiatric hospital. Pharaon also makes several lingering observations of his boss’s body, staring at the sweaty back of his neck and his pudgy abdomen. Compare that to the scene with the pigs you referenced, a static shot of Pharaon’s hand stroking the pink skin and white hair of the big mama hog. Pharaon observes the world through carnality, in an intimate, visceral, bodily way. In that way, he is Everyman. But, importantly, he is never sexual, ever. Other characters are, intensely so, but never Pharaon (Schotté was explicit with Dumont that he would not do sex scenes, so it’s Schotté creating the character more than Dumont’s script).
In further instances, it’s a carnality that defines characters other than Pharaon. I think specifically of the moment during the beach trip when Pharaon, Joseph and Domino are heading down a boardwalk and encounter an old associate of Pharaon’s. He’s a blonde, handsome, strapping man wearing a tight Speedo. We see Domino stare at his bulge. The blonde man then looks at her in a knowing way. She retreats to a nearby bench, while the men continue talking, where we see her press her skirt down between her legs. She remains there until Joseph and Pharaon continue walking, and Joseph turns and whistles at her to catch up. It’s remarkable how much is communicated in this small scene.
It’s easy to interpret a lot of these sensate, corporeal images, or exchanges, as means of communication, of beholding, of divining, even absorbing, some inner, invisible spirit of things, of people and things communicating with one another through some kind of osmosis. I think, though, that’s less Dumont’s intent than to simply concentrate attention on the corporeal, and all animals’, including humans’, innate attention to physicality. It’s a powerful, even overwhelming urge, to stare at, to touch, to smell, the bodies and things of the world. And that‘s it. It’s just the human animal sniffing the assholes of the world. Maybe it’s communication, or just confirmation, nothing more than a substantiation of existence, as Dumont drives toward a fundamental understanding of…humanity. There are plenty of social and political ramifications of this, with which Dumont, as an intellectual, is more than happy to engage, but, as an artist, he avoids. And rightly so.
Michael: I’ll tug a little at something you said that jumps out to me. Through all these sensory experiences and glances at each other’s bodies, the characters are perhaps tapping into “some inner, invisible spirit of things.” To what extent would you characterize this as a spiritual film? I think it takes a pretty obvious leap in that direction with some of its images near the end, but on the other hand, Dumont is going to great lengths to suggest the way in which we, as humans, aren’t anything more than hunks of flesh that eat, sweat, sit and stare, attack, have sex. I wonder how many of the folks who dislike the movie find it to be a reductive view of humanity. I don’t think I feel that way, but I’m also not sure what the link is between Dumont’s portrayal of us as animals versus beings with perhaps some opportunity for transcendent experience.
Jim: I said it’s easy to interpret these sensory inputs as pointing to “some inner, invisible spirit of things,” though I don’t endorse that interpretation, nor do I think that’s what Dumont intends. I think he leaves it as a possibility, but isn’t advancing it. By the same token, I don’t think L’humanité is a spiritual film at all, certainly not by design. Although Dumont casts Pharaon as a Christ-like figure, it’s not to promote a Christian world view, or a Christian understanding of humanity, but to promote compassion and empathy in a strictly secular humanist perspective. I think he’s endorsing the idea that people, any person, can be Christ-like, and thereby dismisses divinity.
Recognizing the animal nature of humanity is to accept humans for what we truly are. At first, we only exist, without the limiting effects of essence, as organic beings in space. Employing that peculiar and unique human consciousness, we then make choices. What we do, how we behave, how we treat each other, how we treat the planet and other animals, or outer space, and other worlds, for that matter, is entirely up to us, and will shape the world we live in. It’s each individual’s responsibility to create the world. You can be like Joseph, and spew contempt, ill-will and bad faith into the world. Or you can be like Pharaon, and extend a childlike innocence into everything you do. Or a billion other options. But all of them are purely human, no more and no less. Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity. I’ll say that again, with emphasis. Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity, and deserve to be treated as such. The difference is what each chooses to do with that humanity. Dumont is outspoken about this, and makes it explicit in his films. If we create a world where we dehumanize others, even the worst of us, then we dehumanize us all. The ability to love even the most evil person, as Pharaon does when he confronts Joseph after learning he’s the murderer, isn’t something only saintly people can do. When Pharaon levitates in his garden, or assumes the sins of others, as the final scene suggests, Dumont isn’t saying that Pharaon is in some way divine. In fact, quite the opposite. Pharaon’s base humanity is unquestionable. He’s no one special. If he can do it, well, so can you. But without civility, good will and good faith, that’s impossible.
I know it’s not yours, as you stated, but to think that view, the one I just described, is a reductive view of humanity, then I can only deduce the person who thinks that considers the divine an imperative, that without a god in the world humanity is diminished. I really don’t want to get into a debate about religion, but honestly, that notion is insane to me, as it is to Dumont as well.
All the stuff in the film about civility, about treating others with kindness and respect, and all the little examples of people not doing that, or kind of doing that, or, as with Pharaon, completely doing that, are all instances of people creating the world. The fun-loving table of chanters in the restaurant keep passive aggression alive and well in the world. Pharaon’s boss, the chief inspector, who constantly complains, berates children and shirks responsibility, keeps incompetence alive and well. Domino’s bored, defiant complacency keeps mediocrity in place. Joseph’s general shittiness contaminates everything and keeps evil, even the most pedestrian varieties, alive and well in the world. In each and every one of those cases, an individual is making a choice that shapes the world in a specific way. Dumont reduces all of them to their fundamental, animal humanness, then shows them as their conscious choices shape them, and how those choices ripple out into the world around them.
I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s how I interpret Dumont’s intent with it, a message that I, for one, find tremendously uplifting, because it shoves aside all the bullshit, and gets down to only what exists. But first and foremost, Dumont is an artist, and his representation of these ideas is often expressionistic and allegorical, depicting a world adjacent to ours, but certainly not ours, all the better to underscore those specific details he wants us to see.
But I feel like we’re wandering away from all the visual and dramatic delights of this film. Though the philosophical ideas that ground it are critical to understanding the film, without the art, none of it matters. You wanna talk about some of the artistic and technical choices Dumont makes? The way that Dumont mics his lead performers always fascinates me, so that no matter how distant in the frame they may be, you can hear them breathing and sniffing and grunting like they’re foregrounded. Or that very self-referential bowl of fruit. To get back to the elemental treatment, the way the sky, the sprawling farm land and the ocean serve to place the characters in very specific relations to themselves and others, is sublime.
Michael: There’s no better place to start talking about the craft than with the terrific opening shot, which has us looking up a grassy hill that reaches a little over half way up from the bottom of the frame, with a few trees over on the left, and a figure, who we learn is Pharaon, crossing the entirety of the frame from left to right. Just as you said, even though the camera is some distance from Pharaon, we hear him panting as he trudges across the hill’s undulating crest, which nicely collapses a sense of intimacy and distance into a single feeling. As the best opening shots usually do, it encapsulates one of the film’s formal principles: Dumont will be moving at Pharaon’s own pace, no faster, no slower.
There’s a balanced mix of traveling shots and static shots throughout the movie, and both can be striking. One shot that I particularly like comes in the sequence when Pharaon follows the two young girls on their trip home from school. There obviously are tons of shots in the film that are from Pharaon’s point of view, but this scene has one of the few (maybe the only?) point of view shot where the camera is actually moving. The camera pushes down a dirt path just as the girls are curving around some bushes and leaving our (and Pharaon’s) sight, the wind rustling through the leaves on both sides of the trail. It’s not a lengthy moment, but it’s a chilling one. The air feels charged with something.
Other images are more portrait-like. One that immediately comes to mind is when Pharaon visits the hospital. The nurse stares at Pharaon just as Pharaon, facing the window, slowly begins to shut his eyes, their faces perpendicular and awkwardly close together. The tension strangely dissipates a second later as they hug, and it becomes a tender moment. I really like how often Dumont is able to conjure multiple different feelings in just a shot or two. Sensations of discomfort and tenderness are constantly giving way to and mingling with each other.
I appreciate the general looseness of the movie’s overall structure too. Not only does Pharaon’s sluggishness and hyper-sensitivity make him a somewhat humorously atypical cop, but it’s also kind of funny how little actual detective work he does in the first half of the movie. It’s brilliant how Dumont uses the crime genre simply as scaffolding for his more philosophical concerns.
Any visual details or formal choices you particularly respond to?
Jim: I’ll go with the elemental details. Pharaon is such an earthy character, so bound to the land, that when he levitates, it’s shocking. From the opening shot you described, walking across that ridgeline, to the following scene with him face-down in the heavy, tilled farm soil, to him working his own garden, and the long bike ride up the hill, and back down, to the other scene you described, of him screaming as he runs across the field after following the two girls, Pharaon is continuously associated with the earth, and moving over it. As the film’s most grounded character, it makes sense. I love your observation that Dumont allows the film to proceed at Pharaon’s shuffling, but steady pace, which, now that I reflect on it, might be the most important decision he made in constructing this film. A lot of Dumont’s films unspool languidly, and in L’humanité it’s synched to the protagonist’s own personal rhythm. I think he does something very similar in Camille Claudel, 1915, though Juliette Binoche’s pace is a bit more agitated.
But my favorite image in the whole film is Domino in the ocean. There’s something about her characteristic drive when she walks, pressing into the waves, with the forces of the ocean and sky behind her – the churn of the English Channel – that makes that the most enduring image for me. Domino feels as at home in the ocean as Pharaon feels face down in clumps of earth.
I have to give a lot of credit to Séverine Caneele, who plays Domino. Another local amateur, the film elevated her to celebrity status in France at the time, and for good reason. Her performance is pretty amazing.
And I do love all the shots around town, a place called Bailleul, the town Dumont is from, in French Flanders, on the border with Belgium. I don’t know how he managed to empty it out so completely, but it lends the film an otherworldly, imaginary quality. And just that region in general, where Dumont sets most of his films, I’ve developed a fondness for, with its undulating hills and huge stretches of farmland, under a sky that can be as big and open one day as it is leaden and crushed against the earth the next.
So I gotta ask you, how many films have you seen where the protagonist gets a haircut in the middle of the story?
Michael: Not many! Actually, it didn’t even register with me on first viewing. It hit me on the second viewing as Pharaon starts to levitate. That leads me to also confess that initially, the significance of Pharaon being cuffed in the final shot flew right over my head. Like the shot where we see Pharaon levitate, Dumont doesn’t go out of his way to compose an image that ensures we see exactly what’s happening. In the garden, Pharaon doesn’t rise off the soil more than a couple feet; if you looked too quickly, you might not even notice that he was floating at all. In the final shot, Pharaon is sitting down and angled away from the camera, such that it’s not abundantly obvious that he’s handcuffed. Those moments stand in pretty stark contrast to the directness of Dumont’s gaze elsewhere. I like that Dumont trusts his audience to be attentive viewers. I’d much prefer to miss something at first glance than to have it overemphasized.
Want to talk about the final few scenes and how they strike you?
Jim: Given the intellectual heft of the ideas Dumont works with in his films, he has to trust his audience to notice subtleties. He knows his films are only going to appeal to a discerning and sharp-witted audience, so isn’t going to insult them with overemphasis on certain details.
So the film ends with four significant scenes. I’ll go through them, including my interpretations. I know there are other ways of interpreting them, but I’ll leave that for others to articulate, including maybe yourself.
After making up with Domino, following another of their minor spats, and learning that Domino and her workmates have given up on their strike (two nice little closures), we watch as Pharaon walks into the police station, where there are a number of uniformed officers standing around. When he enquires about what’s going on, he learns that an arrest has been made in the case of the raped and murdered little girl. The chief inspector tells him to guard the accused in his office, while he attends to other business. When Pharaon steps into the chief’s office and dismisses the guard, he realizes who has been arrested, and slowly walks over to the chair where we see Joseph from behind, hunched over in his familiar lavender shirt and blue track warm-ups.
Switching to a closer frontal view, Pharaon asks “It was you?”, which Joseph confirms with a nod, sobbing deeply, his face deep-red with fear and shame. Pharaon then does something very similar to what we saw him do earlier with the detained Algerian drug-dealer. He strokes Joseph’s hair; he rubs his face against Joseph’s face. Then he lifts Joseph to his feet and kisses him passionately on the mouth, while Joseph continues to sob. But the earlier scene with the Arab man, and everything else we’ve learned about Pharaon, leads us, or me anyway (remembering how I reacted to it the first time), to intuitively understand what Pharaon is doing with this very bizarre reaction to learning that someone he knows, someone he might call a friend, is a monster. Because we know now that Pharaon is practically a saint in his humanity. Or that’s Dumont’s little joke, anyway, as with the levitating. Pharaon is just incapable, or nay, unwilling, to dismiss the humanity of anyone. The hair-stroking and face-rubbing intends to comfort; the kissing intends to share. But he’s also disgusted, rightly, and shoves Joseph back down into his chair, and walks off.
Cut to Pharaon standing in his little public garden plot, holding a bouquet of the flowers we’ve watched him grow, staring off into his deeply inner distance. I resist interpreting this placid, static scene, because it just feels right not to rationalize it. It’s Pharaon’s completely soulful self, as if on ceremony, like a chin-raised heroic figure in a Social Realist mural, gazing confidently into the future, holding flowers. Cut then to Domino in close-up, her head lowered, mournful. Slowly she begins to cry, and cry, and cry. Then Pharaon’s arm comes into view and he raises them both to their feet and they embrace. Every time I watch this, it gets to me more, imagining what’s going through Domino’s mind, and her heart, because she does truly love Joseph. But then, having been so intensely intimate with Joseph, which we’ve seen explicitly several times, knowing what he did to that little girl, she must be in unimaginable distress. Although he doesn’t kiss her, like he did Joseph, there’s a strong sense here, too, of Pharaon sharing, partaking, maybe to a degree relieving, someone of their pain, guilt, and shame.
The film ends with a static shot of Pharaon, back in the chief’s office, sitting in the chair we just saw Joseph sitting in. Pharaon leans forward, his arms resting on his thighs. Because of the angle of the shot, slightly behind from the left, only the sliver of a handcuff is visible above his left wrist. Cut then, just as in the previous scene with Joseph, to a close-up frontal view, of Pharaon looking off into the distance. The meaning is clear enough to me, that Pharaon assumes his brethren’s sins, as we all do, whether we know it, like it, or not. It’s a Christian image through and through, but one that speaks only to a universal truism about our identical identity as humans. I know others may read it otherwise, but it’s incontestable to me. Your take?
Michael:Your reading of these scenes feels pretty spot-on; I don’t think I can proffer any other interpretation. But I have a couple of thoughts. In the scene where Pharaon discovers that Joseph was the rapist/murderer, what’s shocking isn’t just that we see Pharaon demonstrating an astounding capacity for forgiveness, it’s how Pharaon expresses forgiveness and empathy towards Joseph that’s startling. Pharaon doesn’t just, say, take Joseph’s hand in his, or hug Joseph, he gives Joseph a big ‘ol smooch! After Dumont has sketched Pharaon as a kind of curiously sexless guy, no less. I’m still wondering what value Dumont sees in it being a gesture that’s so completely bizarre in the context of Pharaon and Joseph’s relationship. It might not matter much, maybe it just as easily could have been a hug instead.
I also wonder if there’s a distinction worth making between Joseph functioning as a stand-in for humanity’s capacity for violence in general, versus him as a specific individual that Dumont thinks, in the context of this particular story, is deserving of forgiveness for his crimes. Does that make sense? In other words, I have an easier time reading Pharaon as empathetic towards the human condition in an abstract sense rather than as empathetic towards any specific person, regardless of how they’ve chosen to act. I think we might differ in that regard. Earlier in our conversation, you emphasized that “Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity, and deserve to be treated as such.” They’re equal to each other and all the rest of us in their flesh-and-blood makeup and their potential for endless forms of behavior, violence included, but they’re not at all equal in what they have actually done. That might be a pointlessly obvious thing to say, but I say it because the ending only works for me if Pharaon is read as empathizing with what’s in Joseph’s nature, not what he actually did.
Jim: I don’t think we differ at all, though I’m curious as to why you think we do. I must have failed to articulate my thoughts clearly. Hardly the first time.
Joseph is absolutely a stand-in. Like Domino, he’s an everyperson. That’s why he’s given so little individuality. Pharaon, on the other hand, is awarded individuality simply because he’s so unusual. There are lots of Josephs in the world, but few Pharaons. And you’re right, Pharaon and Joseph are not equal in their actions, as they are in their humanity, because, just as existence precedes essence, equality, as we’ve narrowly defined it here as a kind of common starting point, precedes an individual’s actions and the relative desirability of that behavior within a given society’s range of acceptable outcomes. Only through action do Pharaon and Joseph distinguish themselves as individuals, and in Joseph’s case just barely. So yes, to your final point, Pharaon empathizes with Joseph’s nature, or, more precisely, his humanity, despite his actions. I despair to think of the person who would empathize with what he did.
All of that then to say I think we agree. To the way Pharaon expresses compassion, I’m pretty sure that’s all Schotté. He told Dumont he wouldn’t do sex scenes, or kiss Domino, so kissing Joseph would seem to be, to me, unequivocally Schotté ‘s choice.
Michael: In that case, forget that I said we weren’t aligned! I think it was just a matter of specifying the way in which we think Joseph and Pharaon “deserve to be treated” equally, based on their shared humanity. I might swap the word “treated” with “regarded”. I suspect that viewers out there who are repulsed by the ending might read it too literally. If you mistake Pharaon as forgiving Joseph for his actions, I imagine that’d be fatal to one’s impression of the movie overall.
It’s been quite a while since I came around on a movie like I have on L’Humanité, and hearing your take on it has deepened my appreciation for the movie considerably. Anything else you’d like to touch on that we haven’t already discussed?
Jim: I can go with “regarded” over “treated”. But I will place a big red flag next to the word “forgiven” or “forgiveness.” Note, I have not used that word, since it has no bearing on Pharaon’s reaction to Joseph’s actions. He’s not forgiving Joseph at all, and to read it as such is false. Pharaon, by embracing and showing compassion for Joseph, is only acknowledging, confirming and enforcing Joseph’s humanity, and by doing so bolsters humanity in general. Pharaon isn’t willing or able to strip Joseph of his humanity, as many others in his place would, but neither is he forgiving him. He’s simply acknowledging the fullness of humanity, and Joseph’s place within it.
I don’t have anything more, though I could go on endlessly refining my language to define these ideas. Dumont always excites me with his masterful balance between what is thought and what is felt, between beauty and ugliness, between comedy and drama. It thrills me that I could help sway you to a more generous estimation of L’Humanité. I think it’s a pretty important and beautiful film.
You and your co-host Taylor have been doing some cool shows recently on your Drink in the Moviespodcast. I really enjoyed your two-part best of 2020 rundown. To tie a neat bow on this conversation, I want you to give me your top five from that list, fifth to first, including title and director, with some brief descriptors.
Michael: Glad to hear you enjoyed those episodes of the podcast! Year-end wrap-ups are always fun to record. Painful too though, since there are always more movies that you wish you could have endorsed. I’ll cut to the chase, here are my top five.
5. The Nest (Sean Durkin): A brooding, slow burn psychological thriller, set in the 1980s, about a family of four that relocates from the American suburbs to an old mansion in the English countryside. The move precipitates an emotional crisis for the family, the primary focus of which is the unraveling of husband and wife’s relationship. Durkin’s direction is thick with unease – at points, it’s as if the film is about to become an outright horror movie – and Jude Law and Carrie Coon both give tremendous performances.
4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack): Clocking in at a breezy 61 minutes, this is an intensely delightful, continent-hopping experimental film in which Mack brings a variety of colorful and patterned textiles to life through stop motion animation. It’s like a travelogue, but instead of following a person around the globe, we follow these eye-popping fabrics that Mack studies across much of her work. It’s joyously kinetic, and features lively, incredibly catchy music, much of which Mack composed herself.
3. To The Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): Coincidentally, this is also a travelogue. Sort of. We follow Yoko, wonderfully played by Atsuko Maeda. She’s the host of a Japanese reality travel show currently on assignment in Uzbekistan, and contrary to the bubbly personality that she puts on for her show, she’s a deeply anxious and nervous young woman off-camera. Kurosawa is best known for his horror movies, but here, he crafts an idiosyncratic character study about a woman feeling alienated and aching to pursue her dreams (which don’t involve reality television).
2. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt): This movie wrecked me. A micro-budget drama, it centers on the relationship between two young women who have been friends since childhood. One of them is emotionally unstable, and as the years pass, it puts a strain on their friendship. I absolutely adore Sallitt’s understated filmmaking, especially his treatment of the passage of the time, and Tallie Medel’s low-key, immensely endearing performance is one of my favorites in recent memory. It brings me great joy to know you loved this one too.
1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa): Slow, mournful, utterly ravishing, this is a work of docufiction based on the experiences of its titular character, Vitalina Varela, who immigrated from Cape Verde to Lisbon 25 years after her husband left her and never returned. She immigrates after learning that he has fallen ill, but she arrives just days after he has already passed away. We spend the film with Vitalina in the slum just outside of Lisbon where several other Costa films are set, sitting with her as she grieves and is haunted by her past. Costa’s images, the darkness and chiaroscuro of which is often compared to Vermeer, are staggeringly beautiful. For those with the patience with it, it’s an incredible watch.
I’ll throw the same request back at you. Give me your top five from 2020.
Jim: I really look forward to watching that Kurosawa film when it’s more broadly available. The Nest, I agree, is fantastic. Costa’s film I tried, but didn’t have the patience for.
I was really impressed by An Easy Girl, from director Rebecca Zlotowski, enough that it settled all the way up at number five. Josephine Decker’s Shirley wasn’t as bizarre as her earlier films, but that didn’t prevent it from a respectable number four. The most viscerally thrilling film of the year was Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, and probably deserves better than my number three spot. The most visually memorable film of the year was Swallow, by first time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, which cements it at number two. Number one goes to Fourteen by director Dan Sallitt, because it’s the single best film craft I enjoyed from any 2020 film. I’m grateful to you for turning me onto it.
Thanks for talking all things L’Humanité with me, Michael, and for putting up with my esoterica. Dumont always revs me up. Fun as usual. Hope to see you again.
Michael: So long as you’ll keep having me, I’ll most definitely be back!
L’humanité is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Michael Clawson: Hey, Jim, I’m glad to be back! We’re kicking this off after a long, grueling week of waiting to hear who our next president will be. Have you been obsessively checking the news like me? Or have you tuned it out and kept your head in the movies?
Jim: The waiting was miserable. But I have to tell you, I’ve been thinking about this edition for a while now, anticipating it, because of its timing. I’ve wondered often how the outcome of the election might color our moods when it came time to do this. As much as film watching and discussion provides us with a redoubt against the madness of today’s world, I couldn’t help but wonder if that sturdy fortress might be overcome by the unthinkable. But alas, I think we dodged that bullet, and have something – a little something – to celebrate near the end of a pretty terrible year.
So, let’s get into it. In the big, wide wonderful world of Olivier Assayas films, when and how did you come to Summer Hours?
Michael: I’d wondered about that too, the possibility of struggling to get into the right frame of mind for this discussion had things gone differently. Fortunately, I can report I’m very much here mentally and am excited to talk through a movie that I love, and that I gather you like quite a bit too.
I first saw Summer Hours in May 2019. Mubi was doing a small Assayas retrospective at the time ahead of the release of Non-Fiction—”The Parallel Worlds of Olivier Assayas” was the program name—and during it I caught Summer Hours as well as Demonlover (also a great movie). I’d already seen Clouds of Sils Maria, Something in the Air, and Personal Shopper, and was already a big Assayas fan, but Summer Hours was the film that really cemented him as one of my favorite directors. I was deeply moved by it, and for reasons we will without a doubt discuss, I remember thinking a lot afterwards about some of the material things and pieces of art both that I own now and that sit in the house I grew up in, and what they’ve meant to me in the past and what they’ll mean to me down the line.
How about you? How did you first meet Summer Hours?
Jim: I don’t remember exactly when I first saw it, but it was at the same time I first saw Clouds and Personal Shopper, meaning Assayas’ more recent stuff. As you may have gathered about me by now, I tend to fix my sights on individual actors who impress me, and then hunt down as many of their titles as I can find. And in this case, it was Juliette Binoche. I’m pretty sure it was my love for Binoche that led me to Summer Hours, and by that route to Assayas in general.
Parallel experiences in our own lives to the elements of this film are something I want to touch on, because I think it probably has a lot to do with how much a viewer will relate to and like this film, or not. But first, let’s go over a general summary of the storyline. The film opens with a family gathering at a home in the country not far outside of Paris. Who do meet and what do we learn?
Michael: We meet quite a few people! The family gathering you mention is a birthday celebration for elderly matriarch Hélène Berthier, who’s played by Edith Scob. Hélène is joined by her three grown children, Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Dardenne film regular Jérémie Renier), along with Frédéric and Jérémie’s spouses and each couple’s children. Frédéric and his wife have a teenage son and daughter, who play more of a role in the story than Jérémie’s younger children. The film opens on a warm, festive note with everyone in mostly good spirits: it’s a sunny summer day, and the kids are running around outside with the dogs in tow while the adults pop champagne, talk, and open presents on the patio.
Assayas efficiently and organically familiarizes us with each of the adults. We learn that art collection has been a major aspect of Hélène’s life, and the family home, where she now lives with just her housekeeper (her grown kids have moved and scattered geographically), is full of the paintings and furniture pieces she’s accrued over the years. Of special interest to her has been the preservation and exhibition of the work of her artist uncle, Paul Berthier, for whom she had a great deal of affection. So much so that she changed her last name from Marly to Berthier. We also learn about her children’s lives and occupations: Jérémie and his family have flown in from China, where he works in business (for the shoe company Puma, more specifically), Frédéric and his family live in Paris, where’s he an economics professor and writer, and Adrienne lives with her boyfriend in New York, where she’s a product designer.
The primary narrative thread begins when Hélène talks with Frederic about what will be done with the family home and all the art it houses when she passes away. There’s talk of whether or not the work should be donated, and if the house ought to be kept or sold. It’s shortly after the film’s extended opening that we jump forward in time to when Hélène has in fact passed away, and Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémieare forced to confront those same questions together.
I think Assayas does a really phenomenal job of laying the groundwork and establishing family dynamics in the film’s beginning. What do you think? And what do you make of everyone up to this point? Please add detail or correct me on anything I’ve misremembered.
Jim: That whole opening act is as good an example as you’ll find of Assayas’ talent for constructing a world that instantly feels lived-in and natural. The camera follows the children and the dogs running down stairs and paths in the woods, climbing trees, pausing to decipher a clue that’s part of the treasure hunt they’re playing at, then erupting again into motion, what I like to call Assayas’ kinetic camera. When the attention turns to the adults seated around the outdoor table, the camera follows the bustle of Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie as they bring their mother presents to open, capturing their respective points-of-view, then eventually settles into more sustained examinations of the personal dynamics between characters. From a purely filmmaking perspective, the opening segment is a remarkable accomplishment.
There is one goof that amuses me every time I watch it. Did you notice that when Hélène unwraps the book about her uncle’s artwork, the wrapping paper doesn’t tear off cleanly, and in the series of shots that follow, the remnants of the paper still attached to the book come and go discontinuously? First there’s a little piece in the corner, then it’s gone, then it comes back. It’s surprising to see flaws like that with Assayas.
The three primary gifts that Hélène receives from her three children are worth noting. Her two sons give her practical gifts, while Adrienne, who shares her mother’s love for art, gives her the book on Berthier. We learn a lot about Hélène from the way she reacts to each of the gifts. The cordless phone (with three handsets!) that Frédéric gives her annoys her, and she does little to pretend otherwise. It’s a piece of modern technology that, though useful, couldn’t be less meaningful to her; it appears several times in subsequent scenes throughout the film, but never actually leaves the box. The blanket that Jérémie gives her she waves off as a typical thing to give an old woman. She’s grateful, but honest, and seems to be maybe agitated or depressed about something, but it’s unclear, at least at this point, why.
There’s a great little scene between Hélène and Adrienne when they trade their opinions about certain design aesthetics. Although it’s evident that Adrienne doesn’t share her mother’s taste for an elaborate silver tea service, she nevertheless concedes its beauty. As a designer of dishware herself, she has strong opinions, but is politely restrained about expressing them. But as we’ve seen, Hélène likes to express herself frankly, so says what Adrienne politely won’t. “In general,” Hélène tells her, “you prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” which Adrienne quietly confirms. Not only is it a telling exchange between mother and daughter, but serves also as a great thematic point for the film as a whole. The exchange about the stamped silver tray is especially cool, since it prompts Adrienne to recall a surreal dream in which the tray is transformed into a living thing. I really love that scene between those two. Just watching Edith Scob and Juliette Binoche working off each other and building those characters is a wonderful thing to behold.
Talk more about the opening act, since it has, in my opinion, an outsized importance in the film. Of course, there’s the conversation between Frédéric and his mother, which you’ve already outlined. What other details stick with you from that first twenty-six minutes?
Michael: The continuity error you mentioned, I didn’t catch that! I’ll be watching for it on my next viewing. I heard Assayas say in an interview that he doesn’t map out any of his camera movement until the morning of a shoot. With that in mind, it’s kind of surprising that you don’t see more of those kinds of issues, but you’re right, it’s not something you expect to see in his films. Just to quickly build on your comments about Assayas’ kinetic camera: in interviews, the first thing you notice about Assayas is that he’s a fast thinker and a fast talker. I’ve always liked how the nimble camerawork that you alluded to feels like an extension of that aspect of his personality. That occasional feeling of restlessness in his camera movement is especially electrifying in Irma Vep, but I agree with you, the opening of Summer Hours is another great example of it.
Another brief interaction from the opening act that’s worth mentioning occurs between Frédéric and his teenagers, Sylvie and Pierre. He pulls them aside at one point and draws their attention to two paintings in the house by a 19th century painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. As they’re looking at the paintings, Frédéric tells Sylvie and Pierre that the art will someday be theirs, but he doesn’t get much more than a shrug in terms of a response from them. “They’re okay, but not what I like most,” Sylvie says. Pierre: “Yeah, it’s another era.” A cut then quickly takes us back outside to the patio. I like the brevity of this moment. So much of the movie is about how each member and successive generation of a family relates to the family home and all that it contains. Moments like these are illuminating, but Assayas doesn’t overemphasize their connection to the larger theme, and instead lets them unfold quite nonchalantly.
In addition to the silver tray that you already mentioned, Assayas draws our eye towards a few particular objects in the opening act. One is a vase that Frédéric asks the housekeeper Éloise to retrieve from a cupboard so that he can put flowers he’s picked in it. Another is a broken Degas sculpture made from plaster that Frédéric and Jérémie apparently broke when they were young. I especially like the significance of the sculpture. One idea that I think the film hits on relates to how objects have multiple functions: something like a vase can have aesthetic value, economic value, sentimental value, and practical utility. The broken sculpture has lost its aesthetic value, but it remains a container of memories for Frédéric. Assayas is constantly having us reappraise the objects we follow throughout the movie, gently nudging us to see each object’s different functions and their meaning to different characters.
There’s more detail in the opening act that we can discuss, so fill in anything we haven’t touched on yet, or feel free to take us forward narratively.
Jim: Maybe Assayas films are filled with continuity errors, but I don’t see them. That’s more likely than anything.
The kinetic camera. It was the first thing that really knocked me out about Assayas. I’m always awed by how his camera swoops into the physical flow of his characters and trails so smoothly beside them, weaving through crowded, tight little spaces. Often his films start with it, which lends that feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story already underway.
I think we can move on to the middle section of the film, a series of episodes that follow the death of Hélène and involve Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie dealing with the estate, including an undertaker, a lawyer and various museum officials, art experts and appraisers. I’m less enamored with this part of the story than I am with the opening and closing sequences. Though there’s an overarching quality of procedural box-checking, which loses me a bit, the ensemble performances from Berling, Binoche, Renier, and the actors who play their wives and fiancé, are thrilling to watch. The meeting when they all come to the realization that the house has to be sold is a fantastic feat of psychological subtlety, from script to direction to performance. The potential for conflict is obvious in their facial expressions and halting words, while their efforts to steer a careful course to resolution are nearly as suspenseful as a car chase.
I have some thoughts on the predominance of stuff as the ostensible subject of these scenes, and the driving force of globalization that serves as the soup it’s all suspended in, but I’ll sit on that for now and let you take the conversation wherever you like. There are lots of fascinating subjects circling around over the middle act that each individual viewer can prioritize as more or less relevant than others. What’s your read on it?
Michael: I would agree that it’s in the first and final act that the film soars. One thing I find intriguing about the middle section is how Assayas skips over certain narrative beats. For example, there’s the scene where Adrienne comes out of a room at what looks like a small event center, where they presumably just held a memorial service for Hélène. I think it’s one of Binoche’s finest moments in the film: Adrienne sits down next to her boyfriend, the camera elegantly follows a curved line as it comes towards her, and she begins to cry, sorrowfully shaking her head as she processes her mother’s passing. I love that Assayas ditches some obviously emotional moments in favor of subtler ones, as he does here. He’s dipped his toes into various genres, like crime/espionage with Wasp Network and Carlos, or the supernatural with Personal Shopper, but melodrama is one kind of storytelling I just can’t imagine him doing.
Back to Summer Hours and its middle portion specifically: what stands out in terms of the family dynamics is Frédéric’s slight bewilderment at the ease with which his siblings are willing to sell what they’ve inherited. He’s reluctant to let go of the house, where he thinks they all ought to convene periodically before eventually passing the house on to their kids. It’s clear that he assumed Adrienne and Jérémie would feel the same way, and when he learns otherwise, his disappointment is mildly heartbreaking. I see a lot of myself in Frédéric here. I’m the kind of person who will cling to material things that I associate with meaningful memories. I also have a strong attachment to the house I grew up in. Assayas doesn’t begrudge Adrienne and Jérémie for their practically minded votes to sell everything, but I think he extends his sympathy to Frédéric. You feel it, for example, when shortly after the votes to sell or not have been cast, the camera follows Frédéric into another room, a bedroom, where he takes a minute to be alone, too in his head to have even turned on the lights as he walked in.
So, what are your thoughts about the film’s interest in globalization? I find it rather tragic that while globalization suggests interconnectedness at a macro level, it can mean the opposite on a personal level. It’s a force that’s actually pulling this family in different directions.
Jim: Well, first, yes, the scene with Adrienne crying after the memorial service is peak Binoche. That little shake of her head tells you so much about how she’s processing her grief in that moment, that she’s feeling things she can’t quite believe, or understand, or accept. With great actors, it’s always the smallest things that signal their genius the loudest.
More than globalization, I see heritage as the central concern of Summer Hours, and globalization its principal challenge. The inheritance of the family home and the works of art within it are an obvious metaphor for national heritage (in this case French), and the sense of birthright its citizens feel for the country and its cultural inheritance. Globalization, which distresses established notions about national and cultural congruity and the shared identity of discrete subsets of people, isn’t, in my view, a good or bad thing, but an unavoidable fact that compels us to reevaluate all kinds of things, one of which is heritage. The fragmenting caused by globalization may actually help reveal things we hadn’t noticed before, and help resolve differences that might otherwise fester.
Imagine the Marlys, these same individuals, going through this same ordeal in a previous era. More than likely, the three adult children would live in relatively close proximity to one another and the ancestral home. The passing of the estate from one generation to the next would simply happen, as a matter of course. There would be no discussion about it. But would that mean that Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie would be equally enthusiastic about it, that each would share the same love for the place and desire to convene there for every special event? If the way I read Adrienne, and, to a lesser degree, Jérémie, is correct, their love for the place would not be as strong as Frédéric’s, but they would feel obliged to observe the ritual gatherings as a matter of tradition, in effect doing things they’re not entirely thrilled about doing. It’s also worth noting that in a previous era, Adrienne, as a woman, the little sister of two older brothers, would not likely have much say in any of it at all.
So, are the forces of globalization, and modernization, on the family helping to liberate some of them from insular family obligations they enjoy less than others? I don’t know if you have siblings, Michael, but do they, or would they, have the same feelings about the family home as you? I’m not trying to posit that globalization is some kind of enabler of selfishness – it doesn’t have intentions – but it certainly has the effect of cracking open previously closed systems. As frightening and alienating as globalization can be for many, it does have the power to liberate, and to foster reinvention, for others. For some, heritage and tradition are penultimate, while for others they’re suffocating. I think that dynamic is at play between the adult siblings, their mother, and the family estate, and, again, in a symbolic fashion, for national heritage at large. I’m reminded of a moment when Adrienne admits to not having a strong connection to the house, or desire to return to it, and, she adds, no strong desire to return to France.
The children, the actual young people in the film, are another factor entirely, which we’ll surely get to, but I’ll shut up now. You brought the film, so I want to hear more about your thoughts.
Michael: That’s an interesting take! I’ve been seeing it the other way around. I’ve thought of Adrienne and Jérémie as lightly swept up in globalization’s currents in a way that abets their detachment from their heritage and home. In addition to the comments Adrienne makes about the family home and France meaning less and less to her, she also says, in the film’s first few minutes, that she can’t come visit Hélène more often because the demands of her job keep her tied down in New York. I’ve wondered if it’s the extended periods of time away, immersed in her work and a different culture in a distant city, that in part causes Adrienne’s estrangement from her roots. Jérémie, on the other hand, is more transparently excited about an increasingly interconnected world, but I don’t get the sense that it’s because he wants to untether himself from his origins. It’s mentioned that while he’s further away from Hélène than Adrienne, he consistently visits every summer, and at Hélène’s birthday celebration, he seems even happier than Adrienne to be there. I also wonder just how truly empowered he is by the transformations in his line of work. His job is going to China whether he likes it or not. I see your point though. A globalized economy can be empowering for someone who’s stifled by or dissatisfied with their current place in the world. You’ve definitely complicated my thoughts about what might be underlying each of the Marly children’s motivations. And of course, there’s the simple matter of each character’s personality. Regardless of their relationship to these larger forces that we’re talking about, Adrienne and Jérémie do seem like they just aren’t as sentimental as Frédéric.
Before we switch to talking about the young people, which will probably lead us into the film’s final third, I’ll bring up one character whose role in the story I absolutely love: Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s bespectacled, endearing, and dependable elderly housekeeper. The house and all the art inside it isn’t hers to keep or sell, but it’s her life that will arguably change most dramatically based on what the grown Marly children decide to do. She seems as emotionally connected to the material inheritance as Frédéric, if not even more so! We learn that after the sale, Éloise will relocate to the South of France, where she has relatives. Frédéric, Jérémie, and Adrienne are by no means inconsiderate towards Éloise, but I find it incredibly poignant how she’s essentially voiceless in the matter, and is left to process Hélène’s passing more or less alone (I forget who the gentleman is that accompanies her on a few trips to the house. Hopefully he’s good company?). The scenes where she comes to check up on the house, first in the winter, when Frédéric and Adrienne are there with buyers, and then again in warmer weather, after the house has been emptied, are so melancholy and wonderful. The loveliness of the score, with its acoustic guitar and strings, really comes forward in those moments. Éloise long knew how all this would likely turn out, but I can’t imagine that makes it any easier for her to say goodbye to the physical space and things she’s become so intimately acquainted with.
Jim: Okay, let me try it this way…
Perhaps I’m overstating it, or evaluating these characters too rigidly, but I do think Assayas is not merely viewing them as people affected by the currents of globalization and shifting cultural expectations. There’s a through-line in a lot of his films about the emancipation of individuals from things that restrict them, including themselves. There’s a choice any individual can make to liberate him- or herself from any confining arrangement. I think of Charles Berling’s character Jean in the 2000 Assayas film Les Destinées sentimentales, who essentially has to break from the conservative orders that define him, including his own choices, to ultimately find his way to a place where he can live with himself. Despite where these individuals in Assayas films end up after separating from their defining circumstances, the important part, the part that interests Assayas, is the journey and the transformations they undergo in the process. Think of Christine in Cold Water.
My misstep is to assert that Adrienne and Jérémiewish to break from their family heritage. I honestly doubt they know what they want with regard to the house and the stuff, but the circumstances of their lives are permitting them to reinvent their relationships with things like family and the meaning of “home,” which they clearly find good reasons to do. And what we’re seeing with Adrienne and Jérémie in Summer Hours is each of them in the process of undergoing that cleavage, just as we see with Christine in Cold Water and Jean in Les Destinées.
I, too, love the character of Éloise. I think it’s fitting that as the only working-class character in the film, she loses the most from the sale of the house, but complains the least, since, like you say, she has no voice. She gets her consolation prize in the form of the bubble vase, an object of considerable value, though she doesn’t know that, and wouldn’t care, even if she did. The vase’s value is perfectly clear to her, as it’s always been, with its utility and its visual appeal, which is far more concrete and meaningful to her than its appraised value as a work of art. Éloise’s place in the story serves as an other perspective to the privileged positions of the three siblings, one in which the value of a place, or the value of a thing, is gauged mostly by its usefulness, or its agreeableness, not its market figure.
On the subject of the children, I want to ask you about the episode at home in Paris with Frédéric’s family, when his daughter Sylvie is busted for shoplifting. What do you think the purpose of that part of the film is? What is it contributing? It feels like a remnant of some larger side-story that was left out of the film. Or am I completely missing the obvious? Don’t get me wrong, I really like that part, and want more of it, but I’m not sure where it fits.
Michael: Totally with you. I think I’ve overstated my own point a bit! I might have made it sound like I see the grown Marly kids as helpless casualties of macro forces. I don’t, and don’t think Assayas does either. These are characters with obvious agency and decision-making power. I mean only to suggest a way in which I see globalization as very subtly impacting the Marly family.
Is it safe to assume Assayas did some shoplifting as a teen? Between the inclusion of it here and in Cold Water, it sure feels like autobiographical detail. I’m not sure how Assayas sees it fitting into the narrative or themes of the film at large, but I’m with you, I like that it’s there. I think it broadens our sense of the various roles Frédéric plays in his own life. It enriches his character. Without the shoplifting episode, we’d primarily recognize Frederic in relation to his mother and siblings, with his role as father to his own children falling into the background and out of focus. It also nicely prepares us for more time with Sylvie in the film’s incredible final stretch. What do you make of it?
Jim: Of the shoplifting or the final stretch?
Michael: The shoplifting.
Jim: I think it’s a safe assumption that Assayas was a troublemaker as a teenager.
I suspect you’re right about the shoplifting incident, not to mention the drug possession part of it, which, in an amusing exchange with his son Pierre, implicates Frédéric himself. It all serves to ground Frédéric in a minor drama about his everyday life, and gives shape to Sylvie for her central place in the final sequence, since we know little about her up to that point. She’s the eldest of her generation in the Marly clan, and so is positioned to be, like her father, the one to carry forward the mantle of the family legacy.
In one of the final scenes, after having visited the Musée d’Orsay, where some of the most valuable and culturally relevant items from the house are now on display, Frédéric and his wife Lisa are having lunch and discussing the final details of the estate sale. Lisa mentions that Sylvie and Pierre and their friends are going to spend the weekend at the house before it sells, and have a big party. Frédéric says “They better behave,” to which Lisa asks “Why?” which gradually occurs to them both as very funny, which it is. It’s really cathartic to laugh with the two of them in that instant, after so many of the heavy and melancholy events that have preceded it. Come to think of it, it does speak back to the shoplifting incident and the subsequent scolding, when Sylvie’s youthful transgressions receive a dire reaction, since here the thought of her and her friends misbehaving is casually dismissed.
This brings us to the film’s final sequence, back at the house in the country, as Sylvie and Pierre receive their friends and settle in for their festive weekend. As we know from Cold Water, Olivier Assayas is a master at capturing teenagers partying. Though here it’s a different generation, it’s no less spectacular. Describe this amazing scene, Michael. I’d love to hear you tell it.
Michael: The final ten minutes or so are utterly intoxicating. Assayas takes his kinetic camera, to use your phrase again, and sweeps it around the country house as the weekend of partying gets underway, capturing all the little sources of electricity that begin to charge the atmosphere. Friends of Sylvie and Pierre pull up in the driveway on motorbikes, beer and weed start to make their way around, speakers get set up and music starts blaring. The scene comes to life so thrillingly in part because Assayas shoots it like he does the party scene in Cold Water: he’s mainly tracking Sylvie’s movements throughout the house, but for brief moments, the camera will turn towards the other kids and follow them around a corner or as they go from inside to the patio, before returning to Sylvie. Although I suppose it technically is one, I’m not inclined to call the scene a “set piece” because of how totally organic and apparently spontaneous all the activity seems. I love it so much. The Marly home, now empty of the precious material things and art it housed for so long, is once again overflowing with life, but now it’s that of the next generation.
Jim: Set piece is accurate, I think. The last time I watched it, it did feel choreographed, though it is done with a remarkable degree of natural flow. The single driver of that flow is that Sylvie is looking for her boyfriend Richard, so she’s bouncing from group to group, asking where he is, encountering friends along the way, stopping to change the music. There is a discernible line that the camera is following, or goal it’s pursuing, which is to find Richard. When Richard is finally found at the pond, he and Sylvie keep moving, to find solitude away from the bustle of the party. The central narrative thread of the film is then concluded when Sylvie and Richard stop in an area where Sylvie recalls picking berries there with her grandmother Hélène, and how Hélène had told her that someday Sylvie would bring her children there, which prompts her to fall into a sad reverie about how that won’t happen and what she’s lost, maybe something she hasn’t fully digested until that moment. It’s intensely moving, accentuated by the camera’s painterly profile of her, cast in a warm contrast of shadow and light. The entire film pauses in that moment and reflects back on itself, then regathers and hurls forward again. Sylvie and Richard climb over an old stone wall and run off across another field as the camera, now still, watches them bound off into their future.
There really are few films with endings so great as Summer Hours. Any thoughts on it yourself? Anything we missed? And finally, since you brought the film to discuss, how would you describe its importance to you, not only as a work of art, but as a personal touchstone?
Michael: Those final few minutes with Sylvie and Richard off on their own feel like they’re right out of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love.
This movie hits on themes I’m naturally drawn to, namely family, art, and loss, and I’m just knocked out by its generally wistful tone and the gracefulness of Assayas’ storytelling. I love the films of Yasujrō Ozu, and of the Assayas films I’ve seen, Summer Hours strikes me as his most Ozu-like with its interest in the dynamics between and within the different generations of a single family. I’ve seen it several times now, and every time it puts me in a reflective state. I think about visiting my grandparent’s houses when I was young and my relationship to all the things they had, some of which are now in my apartment, and it also makes me think about my own childhood home, and how hard it’s going to be someday to make the calculations the Marly children have to make about what to keep and what to sell. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite Assayas film or not—that might be Clouds of Sils Maria—but this is the one of his that I think moves me the most.
Does Summer Hours have any special significance for you? Has it come up or down in your estimation since you first saw it?
Jim: Special significance? No, but I do love it. It’s a great comfort film. And it’s so very French, so I adore it for that, too. I would say you’ve helped me enjoy it on a more elemental level, so thank you. I think of it as a treat from one of my favorite directors. I guess my personal Assayas favorite is Personal Shopper, because of its taut formalism and Stewart’s amazing performance. All that said, I can relate to Summer Hours directly, because of an extended family property that’s left a lot of formative impressions on me since I was very young. I’ve struggled to remain connected with it, because of changes in my perception of the place and the people. That might help you, more than any of my previous words, understand some of the ways I responded to the part of the film concerned with the personal connections to the property. I think it’s crucial for our relationships with things and people to change, become challenging, and sometimes end. Stasis kind of freaks me out.
To wrap up the conversations now, I’m turning away from the film at hand and asking for a “reverb,” meaning something that your thoughts have been returning to recently. It can be anything. What’s been echoing in your brain lately, Michael?
Michael: Well, like most cinephiles, one thing I’m constantly thinking about is how cinema is and will continue to be impacted by the pandemic and political chaos in the US, neither of which look to be calming down anytime soon. More specifically though, I’ve been wondering about the possibility of there finally being less interest among general audiences in the kind of storytelling that most studio tent poles have gravitated towards in recent years. Going into 2021, what kind of appetite will people have for big-budget, spectacle-driven movies where the stakes are often absurdly, almost laughably cataclysmic, when we’ve been living through such dire times? I wonder how what constitutes escapism might change, and if there’ll be a shift in the movie mainstream towards stories that are lighter in tone. Personally, my hunger for foreign film has only intensified over the past ten months because I so desperately want to vicariously experience non-American culture. I know, these aren’t super unique ideas, but my mind does keep coming back to them.
What have you been mulling over?
Jim: I like your thinking and agree completely. I think suffering refines people’s relationship with beauty, to which all art aspires. The appetite for artifice might diminish.
I was listening to Kara Swisher interview novelist Jeff VanderMeer on her podcast Sway. VanderMeer is a big favorite of mine. He writes intensely psychedelic, weird fantastical fiction. He’s a gifted writer with a world-devouring imagination. At one point, Swisher asked him what he meant we he wrote “Find your contamination and greet it warmly. Attempt to make friends with it, and perhaps it will not destroy us.” He went on to talk about the mental construct of walls, of barriers, and how “we spend a lot of time keeping the outside outside.” He used pest control as an analogy. If you’ve read any VanderMeer, you’ll know how central this is to his work. If you’ve seen Alex Garland’s Annihilation, adapted from VanderMeer’s novel, you’ll recognize that theme there as well. Beyond the phantasmagorical panoply of his fiction, where VanderMeer explores ideas around contamination, it also has everyday applications that I probably don’t have to explain, involving anything one might observe as a contaminate, an invader, something undesirable. Isn’t it with adaptation and immersion that we always best survive incursion, rather than adding another layer of fortification to delay the inevitable? Important, too, to that survival, are mutation and death. A bit abstract and strange, I know, but VanderMeer endlessly enchants me, and given so many of the troubles rushing at us these days, the idea of absorbing contamination, both figuratively and literally, has been returning to my thoughts often since listening to that interview.
Michael, thanks for doing this with me again, and for bringing such a great film to discuss. Stay safe and we’ll do it again!
Michael: I haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, but I loved Annihilation, and your description of his work intrigues me.
Thanks again for hosting Jim, this was a lot of fun!
Jim: Watch this space in a couple weeks, when Andrew Hutchinson returns and we discuss Claire Denis’ masterpiece 35 Shots of Rum.
Summer Hours Trailer
Summer Hours is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on the Criterion Channel.
On another in a long line of sweltering summer days in post-war Japan, rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), exhausted from a night without sleep, boards an uncomfortably packed city bus after leaving the gun range, and upon deboarding, realizes his colt has been pickpocketed. On foot, he chases after the man he suspects is the culprit, but loses him. Murakami is an honest, upright new recruit, so he immediately reports the incident to his chief, who isn’t anywhere as concerned as Murakami is about there being one more gun out there amid the general public. From the chief’s perspective, the difference is marginal, but to Murakami, it’s devastating. Any blood drawn by the gun will be on his hands, and the guilt bearing down on him is as oppressive as the brutal seasonal heat.
Initially, Murakami seeks out the thief on his own. A colleague helps to lead him to the realization that there might have been an accomplice, and sure enough, when Murakami sifts through mugshots of previously booked pickpockets, he recognizes a woman from his miserable bus ride. He tracks her down and tails her around the city in one of two extended montages in which Kurosawa dexterously condenses action down into a suspenseful string of shots. The second such montage comes shortly thereafter as Murakami puts on dirtied up civilian gear and prowls the backstreets and alleyways of downtown, hoping he’ll be approached by a pistol dealer. Murakami picks up a trail that looks like it could lead him to the thief, and joins up with the more experienced officer Satō (Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular) to see the trail to its end.
The colt does indeed inflict harm before Murakami is able to retrieve it, and that only strengthens his single-minded determination to find the criminal. But how much violence or illegality is he really preventing even if he does get the gun back in his holster before it’s been emptied of bullets? With his obsessiveness, it’s as if he thinks all crime and wrongdoing rested squarely on his shoulders, and there’s something heartening about his optimistic albeit naive thinking that he alone can prevent so much suffering. The culprit, after all, turns out to be a desperate veteran, only one of many in the aftermath of traumatizing war. A commentary on the social ills of post-war Japan thus lies beneath what on its surface is an expertly crafted film noir.