Summer of 85, 2020.
Directed by François Ozon.
Starring Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, and Isabelle Nanty.
In a small, seaside town on the Normandy coast, two teenage boys embark on a sun-soaked six weeks of friendship and romance. But tragedy ultimately brings it all crashing down.
Like the meeting of land and sea that provides the backdrop to Summer of 85, prolific French auteur François Ozon’s 19th feature film deals heavily in juxtaposition. Based loosely on the 1982 young adult novel, Dance on My Grave, by British author Aidan Chambers (a title that alone evokes a contradiction of emotions), Ozon’s bittersweet drama about the impassioned love affair between two teenage boys blends sunshine with sadness, loss with a celebration of life, and a colourful past with a sombre present.
In the case of the latter, the global events surrounding its disrupted release schedule give this particular facet of Ozon’s film added poignancy. Originally destined for a picturesque first play at this year’s Cannes festival, the fallout of the pandemic meant the director had to instead settle for a virtual slot at the Toronto film festival several months after its French theatrical run. The film’s regular ruminations on the past then, coming courtesy of 16-year-old Alex (an impressive Lefebvre), whose voiceover intersects the film’s non-linearity, will likely resonate that bit more with audiences reflecting on a pre-Covid world.
With such a structure in place, Summer of 85 feels like a fairytale framed by a harsh, unforgiving reality. In something of a deus ex machina-tinged moment, after capsizing a boat on the sea, Alex is saved by the handsome, charismatic, and slightly older David (Voisin), who immediately takes him under his wing. Under the blue-skied beauty of the story’s coastal setting, and soundtracked by a meaningful, if a little too on the nose, use of Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’, the pair quickly become friends before something more passionate starts to develop. But if there are shades of destiny to the boys’ meeting, fate, sadly, has an altogether different agenda. Early on, we’re told that David dies, with Alex being involved somehow. Just how involved he is forms the central mystery that slowly begins to unravel in ironic tandem with their blossoming romance.
As events patiently unfold, with speckles of a noir thriller sprinkled about this coming-of-age tale, Summer of 85 offsets its familiar conventions by intelligently subverting several of the genre’s more exhausted tropes. This is perhaps most effective in Ozon’s decision not to center the coming out narrative, but instead shift the focus to an intriguing, if not fully realised, examination of perspective.
In exploring ideas around the distinction between love and desire, the fabrication of memory, and the boys’ differing approaches to death—Alex, who’s never experienced grief, finds it enthralling, while David, whose father died the year before, has a very real experience of loss—the film serves as a compelling commentary on how, in a relationship, perspective and perception can differ wildly and how that relationship can, ultimately, transform us.
In that sense, the filmmaker’s often heavy-handed style—a vibrant adoration of the ’80s, all baked in warm, 16mm, fluffy-hair-and-washed-denim nostalgia—seems entirely befitting a story told from the perspective of a young man pensively recollecting the tragedy of his first love. It might not always be as emotionally enriching as the visual splendour of Hichame Alaouie’s cinematography or the effortlessly watchable performances of its two leads deserve, but Summer of 85 is another positive step in the representation of queer relationships on screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.