As far as ‘80s-set, sun-soaked European summer romances where a young gay man comes to understand his sexuality, Call Me By Your Name still reigns supreme. (A high bar, to be clear!) But if this extremely specific subgenre is to become a thing, François Ozon’s Summer of 85 is a worthy entry. While the film does struggle a bit with some jumbled tonality, the latest work from the famously prolific French filmmaker strikes a new and surprisingly stirring combination of steamy and sweet thanks to the love story at its core.
This poignant emotional core might seem unlikely from the film’s opening, a noir-like lamentation of how things have gone so wrong that someone died. “I must be mad,” Félix Lefebvre’s Alex ominously narrates, “I should have known all along.” He’s got a preoccupation with death not unlike the titular teen lead of Harold & Maude. Alex, though, usually lets the fascination eat him up inwardly as opposed to manifesting his morbidity outwardly. Alex starts the film as a prime suspect in the events that turned Benjamin Voisin’s David Gorman from a bubbly boy into a corpse, and he must account for his role to the authorities.
Summer of 85 utilizes this dark retrospective angle as a framing device for the core narrative, jutting in with updates from the future just when the romantic arc begins to gain momentum. The film does suffer a bit from the genre confusion as it takes Ozon a while to settle into the groove of what exactly he wants to make here. Thankfully, his insistence on maintaining an aura of mystery begins to subside once the film’s main timeline approaches the inciting incident of its frame.
In a welcome change for the frequently irreverent Ozon, most of the irony in Summer of 85 stems from these noir trappings. Fans of the director’s brazen boldness need not fear, for Ozon’s still got a randy streak running through the film with some cheeky anatomical gags. But the director’s undaunted embrace of the sexual never overpowers his uncommon focus on the sentimental. This is a love story, both of a partner and of one’s self, that values and validates the wild mix of unfamiliar feelings swirling within teenaged Alex.
It’s not an understatement to say that David saves Alex in Summer of 85. After all, their introduction comes when David stages a maritime rescue of Alex’s capsized sailboat far from the shore. But his kindness extends beyond warding off death – it’s also in the way he prevents Alex from leading a lonely, unfulfilled adolescence. The character’s cocoon of moodiness is where the casting of Lefebvre feels significant for Ozon. He bears a striking resemblance to one of the director’s most frequent collaborators, Jérémie Renier: blond, brutish and yet a little bashful. Watching Alex’s guard fall down over the course of the film is Ozon’s most enchanting cinematic magic trick.
The two teens become fast friends over the course of a summer, bonding so rapidly that it activates Alex’s suspicions and defensiveness. He reciprocates the kindness only tentatively until Alex can no longer deny the authenticity after David takes a literal beating in his defense. From there, their relationship accelerates quickly and passionately. Ozon unabashedly relishes in their discovered connectivity, never letting the inevitable end cast a large shadow over the joy of their sensuality.
Of course, David’s end must come as the film’s opening portends. Alex, however, must find a way to continue on even though he’s uncertain and adrift. He receives an assignment to tell his side of the story to prove his innocence, which becomes the backbone of the narrative. Alex’s recounting is not particularly successful at providing suspenseful stakes to the film, though it serves another purpose more in line with the beating heart of Summer of 85. Only in narrativizing his lived experience of love can he understand, appreciate and process the jumbled emotions of first infatuation. Ozon’s journey to Alex’s moment of clarity might be a bit choppy, but none of that detracts from the overwhelming power of the film’s tender and moving finale.
/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10
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