There’s great potential in François Ozon’s latest work about the perils of first love, Summer of 85, an adaptation of Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel Dance on My Grave. Unfortunately, the film fails to explore its rich ideas fully, and its narrative structure that uses flashbacks, while clever, is ultimately detrimental. However, Summer of 85’s centrality of a first-love, same-sex experience and lack of pretension makes it a worthy and more approachable companion to recent films of a similar ilk (Call Me by Your Name, A Single Man).
A chilling narration from the dirty blonde Alexis (an innocuous Félix Lefebvre) informs viewers that this story, circa 1985, will end with “a corpse.” Preparing for a trial regarding the dead body, the disturbed Alexis recounts capsizing a friend’s boat off the coast of Le Tréport and being saved by the cool, comb-knife carrier David (a charmingly vibrant Benjamin Voisin). The rescuer brings the frazzled Alexis to David’s nearby home, introducing Alexis to his recently widowed mother, Madame Gorman (a wise Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who immediately takes a liking to the baby-faced Alexis. In the next six weeks, the young men regularly attend the cinema, motorbike with ferocious speed and work at a local Gorman-owned boat shop, becoming closer until they reach a fatal point.
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Ozon’s film is most intriguing when it frames the relationship dynamics between the closed-off Alexis and the less restrained David around their familial differences. For the submissive Alexis, whose family is more traditional than David’s, being generous and outgoing isn’t his strong suit. In a character-revealing scene, David helps a drunk who falls on a busy street. Alexis refuses to support the stranger, a contrast to the altruistic David, whose principles mask a mournful center.
Having lost his father months ago, David approaches death with brevity; in one of the film’s more effective exchanges, David makes a pact with Alexis about dancing on the grave of whoever dies first. The ritualistic pact and David’s attitude towards death point toward the Gormans’ Jewish customs. In a later scene, Madame Gorman and her Jewish Orthodox family members are dressed in black, praying and carrying out a ritual to grieve another family member’s death. Throughout Summer of 85, Madame Gorman speaks with worry, signifying her awareness of the precarity of life, affirming how she and David approach life as not work but something more profound. Conversely, when Alexis first informs his father, Robin (a stoic but caring Laurent Fernandez), about the death of a character, Robin’s response is informed by a belief that death is not markedly significant but rather typical and expected.
Summer of 85’s reveal of the corpse’s “death” lacks punch. Editor Laure Gardette’s flashback structure weakens the character’s death scene by mitigating the moment’s gravitas because of the audience’s knowledge of what will happen. Consequently, though Alexis and others appeared shocked when the character dies, viewers witness their shock experience rather than feel it.
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The Gormans’ faith is not expounded satisfyingly. The image of Madame Gorman with other Orthodox Jews is more surprising than expected; David’s mother is mainly areligious before this scene, with her worry for David and grief more apparent than her religious customs.
Ozon still manages to create a poignant film despite its flaws. Cinematographer Hichame Alaouié’s 16mm footage renders the French town in retro fashion, with grains filling the screen like pieces of nostalgia painting a bygone era. Though Ozon doesn’t shy away from highlighting homophobia — the boys’ relationship is primarily a kept secret, and they get in a scuffle with local bigots — the director mostly frames Le Tréport as an Edenic site where spontaneous meet-cutes, budding friendships and authentic human connections are often found.
The two leads give wondrous performances, with Voison playing David as sensitive and adrift, a vagabond whose travels are emotional segues through his many relationships and friendships. Lefebvre plays Alexis with an agonizing tenderness that overwhelms him whenever he feels the unbound David pull away and give his attention to another.
Summer of 85 is a well-designed coming-of-age work that makes for a sentimental and sensual drama, even if it fails to meet its potential.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.