Summer Hours.
Summer Hours.
Image: Supplied

It’s the holiday season and for many of us that means family season. Whether yours is the type of family that other people envy for their goodwill and easy camaraderie or the sort that makes you shudder in terror and wonder how much therapy you’re going to need to recuperate, here are three films that offer a sliver of hope; a reminder that things could be worse; and a realisation that sometimes there’s no better way to deal with family than to look hard, listen well and move forward.


Summer Hours —

Olivier Assayas’ elegantly controlled family drama languidly explores big, “oh so French” ideas about art and culture, examining the separations and similarities between three siblings brought together by their ailing matriarch.

When 75-year-old Helene (Edith Scob) realises her health and time are fading, she calls her three children and their families for a last visit to the countryside. They arrive — from New York, China and France — each pretending a little they don’t want to be there but quickly realising they’ve missed each other and the warm familiar comforts of their mother’s house. One of the reasons Helene has summoned the siblings is to discuss the delicate matter of what to do with her estate. Less than a year later she dies and her three children Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (an uncharacteristically blonde Juliet Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) find themselves together once again, for more sombre, pressing matters.

What follows is a series of mature and not always easy conversations about life, love, loss, art and culture as the siblings go about the business of letting go of Helene and her possessions. Decidedly sophisticated and French in its attitudes and approach, and decidedly un-American in its lack of tearful regrets and melodramatic sentiment, it’s a quietly powerful examination of big issues that face all of us.



Long Day’s Journey Into Night — YouTube

The granddaddy of the familia horribilis genre, Eugene O’Neill’s stage masterpiece — published posthumously in 1956 — is given claustrophobic, cruel intensity by director Sidney Lumet in this star-studded 1962 screen adaptation.

On a hot August day at the Connecticut seaside home of the Tyrone family, long-held resentments, burning anger and twisted love-hate relationships explode in spectacular and anguished fashion.

Miserly father James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson) tries to pretend he and things are better off than they actually are, while his wife Mary (Katherine Hepburn) struggles to overcome the debilitating effects of a long period of morphine addiction she’s recovering from. Their two sons — heavy-drinking, self-sabotaging, struggling actor Jamie (Jason Robards) and weak, possibly tuberculosis riddled, former merchant sailor Edmond (Dean Stockwell) goad each other and worry that their mother has relapsed. By the end of the day, bitter accusations, recriminations and uncomfortably grimy laundry will have been be aired by all.

Straightforward in its visual approach but smartly controlled, the film is a searing adaptation with excellent performances — particularly from Robards — conveying the mounting tensions in every scene.

O’Neill himself once described what many consider his masterwork as “a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”, and Lumet’s version certainly remains faithful to that description. The dysfunctional family classic and one which so many others owe their influence was so close to the bone that O’Neill refused to publish or have it performed while he was alive. Thankfully for American letters and messed up families everywhere, his widow Carlotta Monterey defied his wishes that it only be published 25 years after his death.



Family Life —

Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi’s classic example of the understated, formally precise cinema of his country’s peak period of cinematic output offers a sad but true reflection on the gaps between pre- and post-war generations and the scars that parents often leave on their children.

When a successful young Polish engineer is bullied and tricked into returning from his life in the city to his troubled family home, he finds his cynical and resentful father has taken to destroying himself with booze, ranting at the changes in government that have dissipated the family’s wealth dissipated and their glass factory ceded to the state.

In the crumbling ruins of the family mansion, its gardens going to seed in the shadows of the encroaching brutalism of state housing blocks, the young communist believer must face the uncomfortable consequences of the new way of life on his nearest and dearest and the ways in which their vastly reduced situation reflects the battle between capitalism and communism — and ultimately between father and son.

It may be his last family gathering but it’s also the one from which he will learn the most, and perhaps find a way of navigating a new life, free of the claustrophobic bonds that have shackled him to his father and his outdated ideas.


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