July 14, 2009
San Jose CA — Camera 3
French / English
103 Minutes — May 15, 2009
Drama / Family
Olivier Assayas [Clean; Paris, Je T'aime]
A woman celebrates her 75th birthday at her country home just outside of Paris. Her two sons and one daughter are there, as are her five grandchildren and housekeeper. She is concerned about getting old and takes her eldest son on a tour of the home, pointing out valuable art pieces and furniture and suggesting what he should do with the home and its furnishings when she’s no longer around. This type of conversation is always fraught with meaning and emotion, and the son puts off any serious discussion, but knows that he will some day need to take control as executor.
Mom dies and the siblings must decide what to do with the house. Frederic is the only one of the three who lives in Paris. His younger brother, Jeremy, works for the shoemaker Puma in China, where he’s just been offered a five-year committed promotion. Adrienne, played by goddess Juliette Binoche, is a artsy designer presently living in Manhattan. The home is full of artwork by their great-uncle, a man that the oldest can barely remember, but who the world remembers as a genius. Should they sell the house and auction the art or keep it as a family meeting place.
Anyone who’s been in a similar situation with their own family can relate to this issue. If you keep a home that few family members will be able to take advantage of, are you simply putting off the inevitable split that all families face? Should you keep it as the legacy of your beloved mother? What if one kid needs cash and another kid would rather have the family home available for use? How do the grandkids feel about visiting grandma’s house, without grandma being there?
On paper, this seems so dry as to be unwatchable, but somehow, director Assayas finds a way to show us exactly how these siblings interact. There are no black sheep, no one is out to get the others, no one is pilfering the really good stuff before the others can see it. But by the same token, no one is going to roll over and let the other two decide what’s best for them. They have three separate lives now and live on three separate continents. How will they come to an equitable conclusion?
The interaction between siblings is very honest. They kid, the get upset, they comfort each other. We don’t need them to say things out loud, we can watch how they deal with each other. The daughter isn’t serious about men, the younger brother has some guilt about living and working in China, the older brother has some anger about being put in the position to figure everything out.
There are three scenes that stick out in my mind.
–After the funeral, when all the siblings are in Paris, perhaps for the last time, they have a dinner at Frederic’s house. Wine is consumed, food is prepared (Quiche, natch), and the discussion begins in earnest about what to do with all that mom left behind. Frederic’s idea of keeping the house completely as it is, complete with housekeeper is met with differing levels of unhappiness by the other two siblings. Subtly, the wife of Frederic and the wife of Jeremy, realize that she should probably be in the kitchen instead of out at the table discussing the inner-workings of their in-law’s family. This was so realistic as to be shocking. One picks up a coffee cup, the other takes a dirty plate in. We see them in the kitchen, not talking, simply letting the three siblings reminisce and decide important things without their input. Anyone with in-laws know that they’re influence on family members is exercised behind closed doors.
–A group of art experts descends on the shuttered home and in one continuous shot, we go from room to room as the siblings and the experts go through art pieces, commenting on their relative scarcity and value, then we leave and go to the next room where pictures are being packed up and such. By the end of the film, you feel like you have some mental image of the layout of the home and its grounds.
–The teenage grandchild “borrows” the home for a party and another long continuous shot followers her as she flutters from group to group, unpacking food, changing the music, taking a hit off a joint, flirting with boys, etc. while in the background a surprisingly large number of kids arrives via moped, car, and bicycle. The girl feels every bit as powerful as her grandmother once did on the same land. The way the camera floats over everyone and notices things and moves effortlessly from room to room, not really focusing in on any one teenage participant in particular. The camera continues outside, down a hill, and to the swimming hole where some kids are cooling off. Really good stuff.
This film had no agendas, and the most important character was the house and its furnishings. Families might be destined to break up in our global world. I didn’t feel the filmmaker lamenting that fact, merely observing it.
After my grandparents died about 15 years ago, there was some serious thought to the rest of the family (their three kids, and we five grandkids) keeping the family cottage on a lake in Michigan so that we could continue to visit. But then we realized that the family was spread out in Seattle and San Jose and DC and the chances of us ever visiting again were pretty slim, especially as one big group. But the fact that even today we talk about that house, with its grassy hill, it’s murky lake water, the aluminum dock, makes us long for those days. We clearly don’t lament the loss of the house as much as the loss of our visits there with Grandma and Grandpa.
, Olivier Assayas