Interview With Writer/Director Olivier Assayas

Credits include Hours; Irma Vep; and [segment in] Paris, Je t’aime

Set in the rambling provincial home of a middle class French family, the latest film from Olivier Assayas could be a surprise for those who remember the director’s Irma Vep (1996), the film for which he is probably best known. Starring Maggie Cheung, the Hong Kong actress who was for a while his wife, it was a playful comedy about a middle-aged film director struggling to make a remake of a silent vampire film. The subtext was the state of the French film industry.

On the other hand, perhaps you noticed Assayas’ name among the 18 director credits for the recent Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films about that city’s many moods and personalities. Maggie Gyllenhaal had the lead role as a junkie.

Summer Hours is altogether different, set in a house in the country where little has changed for generations. It is a reflective piece with unobtrusive style, raising issues that many families face today when children grow into young professionals who find jobs abroad, well away from the influences they grew up with. I spoke to the writer/director Assayas about it last week, over the phone from Paris. His responses are carefully considered and his English very good, so nothing gets lost in translation.

His new film opens on a rare family event with everyone together in the one location, for once. Helene’s eldest son, economics professor Frederic (Charles Berling) and his overseas-based siblings Adrienne (a very different looking, blonde Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) have arrived for the occasion of their mother’s 75th birthday.

There is a leisurely birthday lunch in the garden and over the roast lamb the conversation turns to career. Frederic, who has remained in France, has inherited the issues that challenge his homeland, while his brother and sister have escaped them abroad. Binoche’s Adrienne, a designer based in New York, is the most combatative personality, having disagreements with her mother and younger brother in particular.

As Assayas is both writer and director of Summer Hours, I ask him about the contribution his actors made in light of his comment that the film he wrote and the film he’d made were different. Was he referring to the contributions from his actors?

‘I always have this notion that when I choose an actor he will know more than I do about the character. I’m always pushing my actors to contribute to the character, to add things and even to contradict whatever I’ve been writing.’

With a film about family, everyone will bring the unique experience of their own family experiences and much of themselves to their role. ‘In the case of Juliette Binoche, she’d had a much more conflicted relationship with her family than I had written…In the end, she was more angry, more like an aging teenager’. And in the end he understood it was her way of finding her path into the story.

The youngest sibling, Jeremie, ‘a materialist and pragmatic businessman’, lives with his wife and family in Shanghai. I asked Assayas about his own strong connection with Asia, and in particular China. ‘A long story,’ he said, that began when he was writing for publications such as the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1980s. ‘It was pretty early, (and) before it became trendy to be interested in Chinese cinema’. His book on Hong Kong cinema in collaboration with Charles Tesson was published in 1984.

‘At that time I was one of the first Western (film) journalists to travel to Taiwan, and that’s where I met a group of filmmakers who were just beginning to make movies, and would become known as the new Taiwanese cinema.’ The group included Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But not Ang Lee? No, the internationally famous director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet), who is also from Taiwan, was already in the United States. Assayas maintained a connection with this cohort in Taiwan and helped them get recognition abroad.

Assayas has said Summer Hours is his ‘most Taiwanese film’ with its themes of our connection with nature, the passing of time and the challenge of modernity to traditional values, themes that for him inform Taiwanese cinema and Chinese art in general. ‘It has all inspired me,’ he says.

‘It is also something which has influenced French Impressionist painting, with the discovery of Asian art by artists of that time.’

The long-deceased great uncle to the adult children in Summer Hours is a fictitious artist called ‘Paul Berthier’. Was the character based on painter Claude Monet? ‘I would say that ‘Paul Berthier’ is closer to Pierre Bonnard’. Assayas has a passion for the post-Impressionist Bonnard.

Are Helene and her children and grandchildren a typical French middle class family? ‘I think they are representative of something to do with European society. Meaning societies that still have a strong connection with the past, with their traditional culture and with their roots. Many people have not so much a country house (as we see in the film) but a family house where they gather.’

Shortly after the birthday reunion, Helene suddenly dies, and her adult children must return to decide how the house and its contents, including 19th century glass vases and early art nouveau furniture, will be divided among them. Will they keep the house in the family or will they sell it? It could even be sold to a buyer overseas. Who besides Frederic’s family, the only ones still in France, would make use of it if it wasn’t sold?

Assayas’ own response to the dilemma seems split between regret for the loss of cultural roots and a willingness to embrace the new. France, he says, has been trying to escape the issues of globalisation, while obviously being absorbed by it. ‘You can’t escape the way the world is, you have to face it!’

As we become more aware of other cultures, ‘we have a broader notion of what the world is about, a broader knowledge of the present, and we feel the past is less and less important. So a nice family house, which they would have been fighting over a couple of generations ago, now it’s just a burden.’ A holiday home in Bali would be more to the point.

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