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Olivier Assayas' new film about art uses authentic masterpieces

May 25, 2009 | 11:30 am


When a movie calls for works of art to be on camera, it's usually a good idea to use copies: The rigors of shooting can be damaging to fragile masterpieces. But what happens if a director insists on using the real deal?

"Summer Hours," which opens in L.A. on Friday, tells the story of a family-owned art collection that must be sold off after the elderly matriarch passes away. In a rare close collaboration between a  filmmaker and an art institution, director Olivier Assayas and his crew partnered with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and several private collectors to locate works ranging from 19th century Barbizon school paintings to rare 20th century furniture.

"We tried to obtain real objects whenever possible because authenticity was very important to us," said François-Renaud Labarthe, the movie's production designer.

He added that, in some cases, creating high quality copies would have been costlier than borrowing the real objects -- an important consideration since the film's budget was only 5.6 million euros ($7.6 million).

One of the central items in the movie is a 1902-03 mahogany desk by Louis Majorelle, a French designer who worked in the Art Nouveau style.

The Musée d'Orsay (which originally commissioned the film, only to pull out later) loaned the desk for several crucial scenes and even sent curators to the set who dictated what could and could not be placed on it.

Summerhours2 The museum also loaned the production a glass case created by Majorelle and provided for transportation and insurance costs.

The crew also borrowed from private collectors. The director chose a colorful, pseudo-art deco cabinet by the Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffman that aesthetically clashes with the other works of art in the movie -- a deliberate choice to reflect the family's eclectic tastes.

For certain scenes, the crew had to create copies of a few privately held pieces that were unavailable for loan: a large-scale panel painting by Odilon Redon, a statue by Edgar Degas and two Bracquemond glass vases. In each case, the copies were made to conform as closely as possible to the originals.

"All of the objects are like actors in the film," said Charles Gillibert, one of the film's producers. "We wanted to create a sense of character through them."

The preference for authenticity even extended to some of the casting.

Viewers should pay particularly close attention to a sequence late in the film in which a group of museum officials and appraisers meets to decide the fate of the family collection. With the exception of one actor, all of the characters in the scene are played by real curators from the Musée d'Orsay.

-- David Ng

Photo (top): Actor Jérémie Renier, left, and director Olivier Assayas on the set of "Summer Hours." Credit: Jeannick Gravelines / IFC Films

Photo (bottom): Juliette Binoche works on an authentic Art Nouveau desk by Louis Majorelle in a scene from the film. Courtesy: MK2