By James Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/23/21 – Currently on screen at several of the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles is the latest film by François Ozon – Summer of ’85 (Été 85, France, 2020), which mixes camp, queerness, dark humor and thriller elements into a sun-drenched romance-turned-tragedy set on the coast of Normandy in the 1980s. Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is a working-class teenager deciding whether to join the workforce or continue his studies in literature. While out sailing, he capsizes during a storm and is saved by 18-year-old stranger David (Benjamin Voisin). David takes Alexis to his home, where they meet David’s forceful and charismatic mother (the hilarious Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). As David takes the helm of this new friendship, romance blossoms, and soon he is showering Alexis with attention and gifts, even giving him a summer job at his mother’s nautical store, which David took over after his father’s recent death. The chemistry between the two actors burns as their summer fling gives way to a dangerous obsession and David’s fixation on Alexis turns into something more deranged.
Compared to such Ozon films as Swimming Pool or 8 Women, this film about young love turned tragic tends to fall flat. It might draw some comparisons to Call Me By Your Name, but never conveys the passion of that film. Based on a young adult novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers (published in English in 1982) as its inspiration, the structure of Summer of ’85 is designed to amplify tension and turn the film into a mystery of sorts as to how or why Alexis would kill David. In a virtual Q&A with the director, François Ozon explained that he first read the book at the age of 17 in 1985 and was so moved by it that he dreamt of making it into a film. He thought that perhaps Gus Van Sant or Bob Reiner might do it, but that never happened. For 30 years, Ozon has thought of making a film out of the novel and he has finally done it. He does not feel that his film is nostalgic but rather reflects the sense of freedom in young love that existed until the devastating onset of AIDS by 1984. The original novel takes place in England at Southend-on-Sea. But Ozon shifted the setting to Le Tréport, a working-class beach town in Normandy in 1985. Gorgeously shot on super-16 by cinematographer Hichame Alaouie, this has the tangible texture of its retro setting, filtered through a nostalgic lens that seems to supersaturate the image, amplifying emotions.
The film is centered on Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a death-obsessed teen in the throes of doomed first love, whose morbidly romantic story plays out with the sensual artfulness of classic Ozon, combined with the accessible vigor of an 80s American teen pic. We first meet David (Benjamin Voisin) at sea, a beautiful vision riding the waves to rescue the hapless Alex after his little boat capsizes. David takes Alex home to his widowed mum, played with nervy energy by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who undresses and bathes the new arrival (“All David’s capsized friends go in the tub!”) and tells Alex that “my David needs a real friend”.
Yet with his flick-knife comb and razor-cut smile, David is clearly much more than a friend, taking Alex’s breath away as he weaves through oncoming traffic on his motorbike, chasing an elusive moment of speeding ecstasy that is always just out of reach. All this thrilling young love unfolds in flashback, intercut with later scenes in which an apparently traumatized Alex faces questions about a terrible event for which he is being held accountable. Is Alex somehow responsible for the dreadful fate awaiting David? The only person able to reach Alex is Mr. Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud), the caring but slightly creepy teacher who tells him to try to write about what happened, seemingly prompting the self-questioning memoir narrative.
Pop music plays a key role, with the Cure’s In Between Days bookending jukebox selections that trip from the melancholia of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” to the jump-around sounds of Movie Music’s Stars “De La Pub.” In one key scene, recalling a memorable moment from the 1980 film La boum, Alex finds himself in a nightclub, swaying slowly to the headphone sounds of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” while those around him (including David) cavort to more frenetic disco beats. But whereas in La boum, Richard Sanderson’s “Reality” created a momentary bubble of intimacy for Sophie Marceau and Alexandre Sterling’s characters, here Alex is alone is his reverie, highlighting not only the differing paths that he and David are on, but also the sense that this “friend of my dreams” may be just that – an invention, a projection, reminding us that we do indeed live as we dream, alone.
The background details add weight to the story, from David’s Jewish heritage and suppressed bereavement about his father to the subtly sympathetic figures of Alex’s parents, who seem to understand more than he imagines. There’s also a strong thread of black comedy, not least in a cross-dressing sequence that somehow manages to intertwine agonizing anguish with near-slapstick absurdity. It is the English girl Kate (played by Philippine Velge) on summer holiday in Normandy who somehow changes the dynamic in the romantic relationship of the two young men. It is she who seems to understand best what Alex is going through and it is Kate who offers the best explanation of young love: “So we invent the people we love.”
Director François Ozon wants us to remember that the 1980s was not a wonderful time but one in which AIDS emerged to distance most young people from the idea of love and intimacy. So many of us may not have danced on graves but certainly we had to look the specter of death in the face with so many lost friends and lovers.