As the aged Helene (Edith Scob) goes around the house describing all the various works of art to her son, Frederic (Charles Berling), it becomes apparent, she’s accumulated a lot of stuff. The scene goes on and on as she goes piece by piece talking about the artist, the value and memories they bring back. Finally her son has had enough of all her musings over bygone art and a lost era as if she has come to the end of her days. What he doesn’t know is that she has and not a year later her estate will be left to her three children.
Frederic wishes to keep the collection together for the grandchildren and keep the building as a summer home for the family to reunite. Being the only child still living in France, he feels a strong connection to the place and wishes to preserve the small pieces of French history for another generation. But his siblings are not so sentimental. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) has taken a job halfway across the world that will keep him tied in the Orient for at least five years while Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is constantly around the world and feels no attachment to any particular place.
Adrienne is the wayward cloud of the family, wearing bright colored clothing and standing as the outsider of the famil. In a beautiful scene before Helene’s death the two have a lengthy conversation about various works of arts. As they discuss style and skill the conversation about Adrienne’s taste in arts, the conversation becomes more than just a talk about art but a talk about how her life is so drastically different. She’s become modern where the item is less about the inherent beauty and more about the functional utility it can give. She designs simple housewares that are much more flat and functional than the ancient dinnerware she places them next.
This early conversation brings into light the key question of the film: what is the worth of something? Is something worth the skill put into it or the expression behind it? Is a teapot a work of art or a simple tool? Is the value of the item in itself or in what it makes the user feel and remember? The film supposes all are valid options and perhaps all are true to a degree but then what do we gain by surrounding ourselves with so much stuff?
As the pieces are hauled off the museums and sold to private collectors there’s a lament at how suddenly the item has no longer become something personalized but something held up as a showpiece. It has no emotional ties for the tours that pass it by; it’s simply a mild curiosity. But then if it belongs to someone for whom it has meaning has it not simply become a utilitarian object, albeit an emotional one? The film is full of such subtle explorations of all these idea about what makes any of this stuff worth anything.
To fully branch out and delve into all these ideas the narrative is large, loose and expansive. The film is a series of family reunions that take place through several years as they try to figure out what to do with all of the things their mother left. The film specifically focuses on Frederic among the three as he’s the one constantly in France and the one struggling over all the stuff they are donating and selling away. By the end credits it feels as if the film has covered a vast expanse of time even though it’s not even reached the two hours mark.
This is due to a lot of long takes and scenes that run on in the same location for an extended period of time. It gives the film this feeling of stretched time, that everything exists in this stretched out bubble of space. It might make some impatient as many scenes feel much longer than they are but it somehow creates this timeless mood to the piece, this sense that the ideas are not simply some modern social issue constrained by time but something mules over man’s entire existence.
A lot of modern films are interested in the rampant consumerism of the modern age but I’ve yet to see another film do it with as much subtle grace and timeless air. And it does it without the condemnation that usually exists in such films. We all have surrounded ourselves with stuff and instead of waving its figure at us, this is a film interested in exploring why we are so interested in that stuff to begin with.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing