First in French film series reveals the complications of cultural heritage

From the moment it was invented by two Frenchmen, the Lumière Brothers, cinema has constituted one of France’s most cherished mediums. Since affectionately coining it the “septième art” (seventh art), the French have produced numerous film industry classics and given rise to many genres such as the new wave of the 1960s, impressionist cinema and of course, film noir. Still today, French studios produce around 200 titles a year, roughly a third of film production in the Unites States. In addition, their migration towards smaller budgets and less conventional themes has given French cinema a reputation for being more artistic or, to tentatively use a catch-all expression, “alternative.”
Backed by the College’s romance language department, the French Embassy and the French Ministry of Culture, Images will be showing a number of these recent films for the next month; each week a different picture will be shown on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. and admission will be free and open to the public. The screening of French films will continue every week until Monday, March 7.
The announced theme for the series of works to be shown is “Secrecy and Scandal: Clandestine Lives and Passions in New French Film.” By chronicling the hidden hopes, fears and faults of their characters, these films place the spotlight on the fragility and secret intimacy of individuals as they relate to those around them. In addition, they evoke a diversity that is intrinsic to French culture by highlighting the stark contrasts that exist even amongst family or close friends. The current debates taking place in France regarding its increasingly vast immigrant population, the existence of a French identity and rising nationalism make these cinematographic insights particularly valuable.
This week’s picture was L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours), a 2008 film by Olivier Assayas and starring, amongst others, the actress Juliette Binoche. An affluent old woman and mother of three, Hélène, lives practically alone in an empty house filled with the works and valuable possessions of her great-uncle, Paul Berthier, a celebrated (and, it turns out, made-up) artist. She displays an undying affection for this departed relative, and has made it her life’s mission to perpetuate both his memory and works. We are first introduced to a charming summer luncheon during which the matriarch, along with her daughter, two sons and numerous grandchildren, celebrate her birthday. These festivities are marred only by her insistence on discussing her inheritance, and what should be done after she passes.
Sure enough, mere months after these events we are informed of her death and observe the family as its members clash over what should be done. Frédéric, the only son to have remained in France, is reluctant to break up the inheritance and give up his childhood home. On the other hand, the two other siblings, Jérémie and Adrienne, are now living thousands of miles away in far-off countries, and as their ties to their home diminish, so does their willingness to conserve it. In the painstaking process of liquidating the inheritance, Hélène’s children are shocked to discover that the relationship between the artist and Hélène was more than they had ever thought; in this light, her apparent obsession over this man’s work reveals itself as a stubborn labor of love, an insistence on commemorating a man she truly admired. Nonetheless, the valuable art pieces he left behind are separated and sold, except for a handful of historically significant objects that are donated to the prestigious Musée D’Orsay in Paris, as a final, perennial testament not only to Berthier but also to the woman who cherished his beloved memory.
As Professor Brian Martin of the French department explained, this story is not simply a family drama with a touch of comedy, but a more complex allegory that describes France’s cultural dilemma: In a world whose boundaries are constantly collapsing and in which national identity is waning, guaranteeing the survival of one’s cultural heritage is no easy task.
The theme of art and its effects will be further explored in next week’s installment of this series. On Monday Images will screen Séraphine, the true story of a housemaid who is recognized for her extraordinary artistic talent after a lifetime of silence.

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