François Ozon rolls back the clock for his latest film, examining the nature of young love through a somewhat macabre lens. The French filmmaker has often found unique and often bleakly funny means of expressing the complexity of relationships over his career. With Summer of 85, Ozon offers something more nostalgic, something less cynical, but also a story of young gay love in a pre-AIDS era that has a lingering darkness hanging over it. 

The film follows 16-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) who lives in a small seaside town in Normandy. One day in what is seemingly going to be a lazy summer, he is saved from a capsize by the charming David (Benjamin Voisin). The two strike up a friendship as Alexis begins to work with and hang out with the older free-spirited David. As the relationship deepens, Alexis’ summer becomes one of first love, and of first heartbreak. 

Based on Aidan Chambers novel Dance On My Grave, this is a coming of age tale that has death hanging over it from the very first moments. Alexis is fascinated by mortality and how death is treated in different cultures. A somewhat morose subject for a 16-year-old boy, perhaps, and it adds an almost sinister element to the proceedings early on as a sense of mystery is established surrounding the fate of David. As Alexis recollects his summer experience, his fascination with the subject and that sense of foreboding melts away into a story that’s strangely sweet, making for an experience that’s often odd, and not always in that satisfying a manner. 

It is the mystery thriller elements that feel the most out of place. While it initially sets up a certain level of intrigue, once it becomes clear that nothing is quite as sinister as the opening would have you believe, you’re left wondering if the mystery element really adds anything to the proceedings. It seems a strange way to manipulate for something that ends up being undoubtedly odd but ultimately quite innocent. It slightly cheapens the relationships at the heart of the film, which only seems more of a shame when we are presented with enjoyable and spirited scenes of carefree young love set to an 80’s soundtrack. 

The film is at its best when it is Alexis and David spending time together. Both Lefebvre and Voisin are wonderfully talented young actors who strike a very genuine sense of chemistry together. Lefebvre is particularly impressive as the bright-eyed young Alexis, who very much falls deeper into the relationship than the more devil-may-care David. It is very much Alexis’ coming of age tale, one which features all the touches of a nostalgic teen drama but combined with a sense that the future and adult life holds a darkness that cannot be avoided. 

In dealing with themes of love, loss, and death within a teen drama, Summer of 85 gives way to melodramatic tendencies in its storytelling, but what it is very successful at is capturing a period feeling of France in the mid 80’s. Shot on Super 16, the film looks as though it has been plucked right out of the 80’s, It’s beautifully photographed throughout and has a great selection of 80’s pop to further bring the period to life. 

Summer of 85 isn’t quite as striking as some of Ozon’s work, nor is it like other romance dramas of its kind. An obvious film to compare it to would be Call Me By Your Name; both are set in the 80’s, both follow a protagonist who falls in love with an older friend, and both also involve that first love turning into heartbreak. Where Summer of 85 differs is in its more veering sense of tone; there’s touches of the absurd, pangs of hormonal melodrama and some off key moments of mystery. It doesn’t always run smoothly, but that is often the path of young love, and thanks to a pair of engrossing lead performances, this can often be a captivating, if never wholly satisfying tale of summer love. 

Dir: François Ozon

Scr: François Ozon, based on the novel ‘Dance On My Grave’ by Aidan Chambers 

Cast: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, Isabelle Nanty

Prd: Éric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer

DOP: Hichame Alaouié

Music: Jean-Benoît Dunckel

Country: France / Belgium

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes 

Summer of 85 is available in Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema 23rd October 2020

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