May 1, 2009 -- This is a well-constructed film about the end of a life and uncertainty about the future. This includes disagreements over the settling of an estate and the legacy, if any, left by the previous generations, and wrestling with nettling issues like estate taxes. The film is also about a family scattered across the globe from France to China to America and the possible loss of the French connection to the next generation of children in the family.
The story begins with a birthday party for 75-year-old Hélène (played by Edith Scob of “The Brotherhood of the Wolf”) at her spacious country home near Paris. Her extended family, children and grandchildren attend. Her son, Frédéric (Charles Berling) is uncomfortable when Hélène starts talking about the sale of her property after her death and donating valuable items to museums. Frédéric insists that the estate will be maintained as it is, “for the children.” He means to include Hélène's longtime housekeeper, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) who has agreed to look after the house should the children decide to keep it. Like a ghost hanging over the proceedings is the memory, and some paintings, of the late famed artist Paul Berthier, Hélène's uncle. According to some discussions in the film, there may well have been a sexual relationship between the two after the death of Hélène's husband.
Frédéric's idea is to maintain the estate as a kind of museum to honor the memory of Paul Berthier and Hélène. Hélène doesn't think this idea is going to fly with Frédéric's brother and sister. It doesn't, they have other plans, which do not include the house, its paintings or its furniture. After Hélène's death, Frédéric is forced to agree to sell the property and auction the valuables, or give away some of the antiques to museums in order to avoid steep estate taxes. Frédéric is not happy about this devlopment and some heated discussions follow. Eventually, Frédéric visits a museum where his mother's belongings are on exhibit. It is a nice exhibit, he admits, but lifeless.
The family, gathered for the funeral and disposing of the estate, later heads off to far-flung corners of the globe. Frédéric alone stays in France. He is a professor of economics in Paris. His sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche of “Dan in Real Life”), is a successful New York designer who is planning to marry and stay in America. Brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier of “L'enfant.”) is moving to China with his family and probably won't return to France. Jérémie's wife says of her own children, “You know we speak French at home, but they are far removed from the country and the culture.” Jérémie says, “Their school is in English. Like kids their age they are into America.” Jérémie can't find as good a job in Europe. Asia is where the future lies. The family is drifting away, not just from their childhood home, but from the very country where they grew up. They are losing their moorings to their family, their language, their culture and their country. They are cast adrift in a new century.
This story, then, is one about facing an uncertain future filled with change. Frédéric, the university professor, is somewhat insulated from change, but the rest of the family isn't. Although this film is set in France and most of the dialog is in French (some is in English), the story could just as easily take place in the United States. People here are facing many of the same issues confronting this particular family. Since the turn of the century there is a strong feeling of a rapid decline of the American empire, further fueled by the recent economic collapse. The U.S. once looked to the future, now it gazes longingly at the past. While the 20th century was the American century, it is looking like the 21st century will be the Chinese century. The future is increasingly uncertain and increasingly disconnected from the past. This film ably illustrates this uncertainty. It rates a B.
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