Summer of 85, Francois Ozon’s latest film is a sensually tragic, involving, deeply flawed, and cautionary saga of first love, based on the 1982 novel Dance On My Grave by British author Aiden Chambers.
Very much in the vein of Luca Gaudagino’s Call Me By Your Name, the film takes place in the summer of 1985 in a French seaside beach in Normandy during a very cruel summer (Yes, the Bananarama song plays in the soundtrack), the film explores the joy and freshness of finding love for the first time, yet unlike Call Me By Your Name it takes you more in the direction of Swimming Pool (Which Ozon also remade in 2003) which involves more mystery, intrigue and a potential murder that prevents the material from feeling too familiar, and luckily the film does take you in some unexpected directions despite its shortcomings.
Structuredwith some flashbacks, the film focuses on 16-year-old Alex (Felix Lefebvre) who is being questioned by police authorities after his 18 year-old-friend and secret lover David (Benjamin Voisin) dies. Alex is pressured by the police to tell them the accounts leading up to this death, and he is emboldened by his writing teacher Mr. Lefevre (Melvil Poupard) to write his memories down if he can’t verbally articulate them.
As the flashbacks unfold in a non-linear structure, the story at its core works best as a tender love story where the scenes between Alex and David are quite alluring and enjoyable. Hinging off 80s nostalgia with some tongue-and-cheek sensibilities that he often mixes with tragedy and obsession. Using a lot of 80s pop music including The Cure and Rod Stewart, we see Alex’s first encounter with David on the sea during a boating setback where David saves Alex from drowning at sea. Alex ends up going to David’s house where his mother strips him naked so he can freshen up, even though he is reluctant to. They end up helping a drunk stranger (Yoann Zimmer) as David insists they help him.
The two young men end up finding attraction towards each other and they find themselves spending quality time together boating, at the beach, at nightclubs, going on romantic motorcycle rides, and going to the movies together. Of course their innocent and intimate romance is undermined once a young, American young woman Kate (Phillippine Velge) encounters both men at the beach and Alex can sense David has taken an interest in him. From there the film fades into a clumsy and messy third act that isn’t quite as engaging as the middle section of the film. However, where the film resonates is just how appealing and nuanced these two characters are, you buy into their brief love. The film does unravel with some brutally honest scenes and exchanges, Alex’s heartbreak and inarticulate feelings towards avid speaks volumes about the agony and elations of love. While the police procedural stuff is the weakest link in the narrative, the film is anchored with its heart and attention to character depth.
All around Ozon’s film is elegant and polished, shot in luminous 16mm that is comparable with his artistry in Under the Sand and Swimming Pool. It’s a film that captures the innocence and joys of first love and is done with sensual beauty and rigor. While slight, and uneven, it’s undisputedly fanciful as Ozon explores just how fragile human emotions are that consists of betrayal, anxiety, and broken promises. That is the common experience in Summer of 85, you will easily find something deeply flawed, only for it to win you over with a great scene–including a very powerful moment where Kate convinces Alex to sneak into the morgue disguised as an ex-girlfriend who holds deep melancholy. Summer of 85 tells a charming story, but one with unexpected tonal shifts that is anchored with some psychological depths. The tenderness certainly overpowers the quibbles making Summer of 85 a genuine experience.