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Summer of 85 review - a tender, tragic coming-of-age | reviews, news & interviews

Summer of 85 review - a tender, tragic coming-of-age

Summer of 85 review - a tender, tragic coming-of-age

François Ozon's unforced gay youth romance has a winning naturalness

The passion of summer: Alexis (Félix Lefebvre, behind) with David (Benjamin Voisin)

Intriguingly, Summer of 85 could have been François Ozon’s very first film.

Back in the mid-Eighties the French director was much taken by Dance on My Grave, the YA novel by Aidan Chambers on which it’s based, its youth-romance, coming-of-age story – one centered on a teenage gay relationship that, unusually for its time, came with no extra complexes for that sexual orientation – obviously attractive. Ozon even wrote a treatment at the time, though he actually hoped he would end up watching an adaptation made by someone else, probably coming from America (Gus van Sant was one of his hopefuls).

Summer of 85 reaches us instead some 35 years on, Ozon’s 19th film no less, though the recollection of that early interest surely gives it additional significance: we wonder quite what made him turn to it now, how it will fit into that prolific career and the various strands that the director has made his own over the decades. As if reflecting an element of that, Summer of 85 divides its own timescale rather into “then” and “now”. First, there are the events of the passionate six-week summer affair that sees 16-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) captivated by David (Benjamin Voisin), who's two years older but markedly more grown-up, when the latter rescues him from a capsized dinghy.

The naturalism of setting in this Normandy seaside town is as persuasive as the naturalness of the film’s playing 

Then, in parallel, we have Alex’s voice-over narration as he faces up to the consequences of actions that have led to David’s death – no plot spoiler there, with Alex (as he’s now calling himself) mentioning the fact of that demise in the film’s opening lines. That second perspective comes with an occasionally contrived hint of the thriller, as we follow Alex’s planning, together with his social worker, what he is going to say at his judicial hearing. With that preparation coming in the form of a written personal testament, coaxed out of him by a more than sympathetic school teacher, there’s a suggestion that Ozon has extended the horizon of his story further ahead, exploiting the trope by which a now-established writer looks back, not without a smack of the portentous here, on the formative experience of his childhood.

The appeal of Summer of 85 lies considerably more in emotions felt in the moment, rather than as they are recollected (more tranquillity than not here, as it happens). Though it would be oversimplifying to associate Ozon as a director with artifice, with ludic seductions, much of his better known work has been defined by those elements, which has made some of his more recent films – the WWI love story Frantz from 2017, particularly – feel appreciably more sombre. Summer of 85 continues in that latter vein, not so much for any ostensible tragedy in its subject, as for its attractively straightforward premise: do we believe in the hurt of first love as it is experienced by the naif Alex? That we do is a major part of Ozon’s achievement – even if neither his script, nor Lefebvre’s playing moves far beyond the puppyish when it encounters the different demands of the second-half action.Summer of 85There’s a striking dynamic between Lefebvre’s Alex, with his blond “angel face” innocence, and Voisin’s David – since we’re in the 80s, think Andrew Ridgeley – who has a hint of something darker, even a suggestion of the deviant, that’s there in some slightly sinister habits as well as in his motorbike addiction to speed. There’s nicely played comedy in the way that Alex is absorbed very briskly into the home life of his new friend, whose mother (played by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, scatty) offers the kind of hospitality you can’t refuse (hints of something darker there, too), as well as social observation in the difference of prosperity between there and Alex’s more modest origins. But Isabelle Nanty as his mother gets any “supportive mum” award here hands-down, guessing at and tentatively broaching the subject of her son’s emerging homosexuality (Bruni-Tedeschi’s character, by contrast, barely seems to notice).

Though it comes as a given from Chambers’ original, you might wonder whether, in this sort of smalltown 80s atmosphere, gay love could really unfold so smoothly – at least, in its wider, social context – as it does here. (The film may have been called Ozon’s response to Call Me by Your Name, but the difference of milieu between the two films is striking.) Ozon is strangely unrevealing about the details of the relationship, too – we see passionate kisses, and tender afterplay, but nothing more explicit, which undeniably reduces the film’s passion quotient. But then, as Kate (Philippine Velge, pictured above, with the male leads), the English girl who becomes the third piece in their attachment triangle, observes, Alex somehow “loved the idea of David” – he is the first infatuation, the “friend of my dream” – more than his reality. Their moving-apart becomes clearest in a discotheque scene where Alex’s private mood is caught by the music that he’s listening to on a walkman, set apart from the hubbub in which David is absorbed. The fact that the song he’s transfixed by is Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”, and that it’s a genuinely moving moment says a great deal for Ozon’s empathetic skills.

Which are there every bit as much in the rest of the soundtrack, which takes in The Cure (“In Between Days” works an opening treat), Bananarama and other sounds of the time, crafting a lovely sense of place and time that’s there too in the slightly bleached colours of Hichame Alaouie’s Super-16 celluloid cinematography. Just as Alex’s lack of affectation convinces, Summer of 85 has a freshness that absorbs in the moment, any associated inconsistencies on the edges falling away. The naturalism of setting in this Normandy seaside town – it seems a world away from what the novel’s original location, Southend-on-Sea, might have felt like at the time – is as persuasive as the naturalness of the film’s playing.

The appeal lies considerably more in emotions felt in the moment, rather than as they are recollected


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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