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The French redeemed by layered 'Hours'

My favorite movie of the moment is "Summer Hours," and it's making me mad.

I've seen it twice, and I can't get enough of it. There's nothing bad I can say about it, which is making me even madder.

Why am I so mad? For starters, it's from France, and some of you know how I feel about that place. (To prevent a stream of hate mail from French Triangle residents and Francophiles, I'll refrain from getting into it here.) It's killing me even more that this, along with the superlative, previously released "The Class," spoke to me more than any American movie I've seen this year.

Just like "Class," "Hours" is a movie most Americans may relate to all too easily. It deals with something many people (including me, miserably, I might add) have had to deal with: sorting the estate of a deceased parent.

In this case, it's an art-collecting matriarch (Edith Scob) whose offspring have to go through this arduous task. Before she dies, she tells her eldest child, Frederic, (Charles Berling) what to do with her belongings, including her rustic home in the country, where the family joyfully convenes in the movie's opening moments. Frederic prefers that the house stay in the family so it can be passed down to his and his siblings' children. But even his mom thinks that the home will be more of a burden than a birthright. Besides, Frederic's sister Adrienne (a blond Juliette Binoche) lives in America, while baby brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) is bound for China. So who needs it?

Except for a few instances, the siblings act respectfully toward one another, and they appear to have genuine affection for one another. And yet they realize that even though family is important, they have their own lives to lead.

Directed with a beauteous, steady hand by Olivier Assayas, "Hours" appears to be a sorrowful dismantling of a family's legacy and a sorrowful dismantling of France's legacy. Or at least, the France we know, with its picturesque homes, priceless artwork and finely crafted furniture. As their mother's valuables -- the Corot paintings, the Bracquemond vases, the Majorelle desk -- are sold or sent to the Musee d'Orsay, the history of the country is roped off from the contemporary world. "Hours" shows the past has no place in the future.

Assayas is a filmmaker I'm still iffy about. (It's been 12 years since I saw his meta "Les Vampires" remake "Irma Vep," and I'm still on the fence.) But "Hours" is not only the most competent, well-made movie I've seen of his but also his most richly layered. There isn't a more quietly devastating shot I've seen recently than the scene where Eloise (the mesmerizing Isabelle Sadoyan), the housekeeper, walks around the locked, empty home, virtually shut out of the family she was once a part of.

The movie goes out of its way to be more sensible than emotional, but it reveals itself to have a bigger, more forlorn heart than viewers may realize. It isn't until the movie's final minutes, when an unlikely relative briefly, sadly mourns the loss of the inherited future that will never happen, that "Hours" becomes the most deceptively unsentimental movie about the importance of sentimental value I've ever seen. Damn the French!

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