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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Summer Hours


Summer Hours is a film about death and uncomplicated grief. It is also about families and the relationship between adult siblings thrown together at a time of shared crisis as they sort out the possessions and property of their deceased parent. It touches on the issue of how we plan for our death. In French, with English subtitles, it was directed by Olivier Assayas, in 2008.

The project was originally commissioned as part of a series of short films intended to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (an art museum housing works from 1848 to 1914).

Summer Hours

However when the museum project collapsed, Assayas remained drawn to the subject and developed his ideas into a full-length film.


He chose the title Summer Hours (the original title in French, L'Heure d'été , actually translates as the summer hour) to reflect the notion of transience in both nature and life. The film examines the interface between art and life and focuses on the dual role of artistic objects as heirlooms and as historical artifacts. It explores how emotional memories become associated with objects in their journey through families and how important those objects may become during the grieving process. Beautifully filmed, and with a wonderful soundtrack, this is a vivid, yet gentle, family drama that portrays individuals from different generations dealing with death and its aftermath.


The Film

This is a film that I do not wish to describe in too much detail. Summer Hours must be experienced, regardless of the fact that it is spoken in another language. In fact, the universal emotions portrayed are the reason that I recommend it. I will set the scene by outlining the main players in the story. We are first introduced to three generations of a family at Helene’s idyllic country home, not far from Paris. The family has gathered to celebrate her 75th birthday. We soon learn that she has three children; her eldest son Frederic, an economist and university professor in Paris; her daughter Adrienne, a designer working in New York and her youngest son Jeremie, a successful businessman working in China. Both sons are married with children whose ages range from teenage to toddler. Helene’s uncle, Paul Berthier, now dead, was a famous artist who lived and worked at the family home and was responsible for acquiring some of the art collection that fills the rooms. Helene has been committed to preserving the memory of her uncle for many years.


Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Summer Hours sensitively depicts death in a family and examines minutely the period that follows the sudden loss. It shows us the painful process of dismantling a life suddenly suspended at the point of death, a task that is central to the process of grieving. Through the course of the film, it examines the varied responses of people from different generations as they deal with their grief. All of them, it appears, suffer from uncomplicated grief.   As well as losing a family member, there are objects and a place that must be given up, portraying the complexity of the processes involved in bereavement. Where a family home must be relinquished, the severing of an attachment to childhood may have to be negotiated, introducing another important hurdle that must be overcome.


I suspect that most viewers will identify with the emotions portrayed in this film because loss is a universal phenomenon. Anyone working with the bereaved will recognize how important it is for an individual to work at their own pace when sorting through the deceased’s belongings and affairs. For anyone seeking to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of uncomplicated bereavement and grief this film could provide an excellent starting point for further discussion. Summer Hours does all of this without being gloomy or overly sentimental.


For anyone seeking more information about the topic of grief and bereavement there is an excellent leaflet produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on the subject.


The psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes has spent a lifetime working in the field of attachment and loss. His Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (now in third new edition, published by Penguin in 1998), remains a classic work. More recently his interest has focused on the nature of early attachment bonds that may influence the patterns of grief expressed by an individual in adult life, especially when grief is pathological. This subject, the result of his lifetime’s work, is presented in the book Love and Loss (published by Routledge, 2006). His central tenet is that loving and grieving are like the flip sides of a coin and that we cannot have one without the other. The price we pay for loving is the inevitability of grieving. The risk of losing the loved person is one that we must take in order to obtain the riches of intimacy. The nature of the bond formed will determine how we deal with the breaking of that bond.


In Summer Hours it seems that all three of Helene’s children have positive but varied experiences of growing up, and have developed into successful independent adults, able to cope well with her passing.

For psychiatrists, it might also be interesting to follow the discussions currently taking place about the proposed changes in the new ICD-11 and DSM-V systems of classification of mental disorders, with regard to grief. In DSM-V there is a suggested revision that will remove the bereavement exclusion criteria for Major Depressive Disorder with, some say, the potential to give an unnecessary psychiatric diagnosis to certain bereaved individuals. In another proposal, a new category of prolonged grief disorder is suggested, in both ICD-11 and DSM-V, following a study published in the open access PLoS journal by Prigerson HG, Horowitz MJ, Jacobs SC, Parkes CM et al Prolonged grief disorder: Psychometric validation criteria proposed for DSM-5 and ICD-11, (2009). This new category would be distinct from other forms of pathological grief response and allow for the detection and treatment of a specific group of people at risk of persistent dysfunction and suffering six months after bereavement.


Perhaps the greatest challenge will always be to recognize the difference between uncomplicated ‘healthy’ grief (which is not a mental disorder), and pathological grief, so that those needing help are offered it.  Summer Hours offers viewers an exquisite portrait of certain aspects of healthy grief and the practical issues that the recently bereaved often face.


22 July 2010


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.