'Summer of 85' ('Été 85'): Film Review

Courtesy of Mandarin/Playtime
From left: Benjamin Voisin and Felix Lefebvre in 'Summer of 85'
A wayward attention-grabber, just like a teenager.
7/14/2020

French auteur François Ozon's latest, which comes with the Cannes 2020 label, relocates Aidan Chambers' novel 'Dance on My Grave' to sun-dappled Normandy.

How can an angelic-looking, 16-year-old blond boy resist a more tenebrous, slightly older man with a silver earring, a sailboat, a motorcycle and nipples peeking from beneath his billowy 1980s shirts? It's no surprise when cute Alex falls in love with the edgy and alluring — if also ill-omened — David in Summer of 85 (Été 85), the 19th feature from gifted French filmmaker François Ozon. What is surprising is how deeply this French-language adaptation of British novelist Aidan Chambers' 1982 YA classic, Dance on My Grave, feels like a full-circle moment for Ozon, as well as for audiences who have been following him since his late-1990s debut.

In terms of style, Summer of 85 is a throwback to the bold, insouciant spirit of the director's earliest works. But here, the story and the characters' supposed naiveté and the almost-too-obvious stylistic flourishes aren't just nods to his younger, less-refined M.O. They are actually part of a master storyteller's tools to seduce a grown-up audience into considering how youngsters not only experience their own lives but also how they process and talk about them.

As the first major commercial title in France to carry the Cannes 2020 label, this July 14 domestic release should do brisk business as long as theaters are allowed to remain open. Its physical festival premiere is scheduled for San Sebastian in September, where In the House, one of Ozon's other major films about the complexity and dark corners of the teenage mind, won the Golden Shell in 2012. 

Alexis (relative newcomer Felix Lefebvre, in a breakout role) and his working-class parents (Isabelle Nanty, Laurent Fernandez) have recently moved to the sleepy Normandy seaside town of Treport, where the fair-haired, round-faced boy knows few people. Perhaps that's one reason he becomes fast friends with 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin, a true find), a more muscular kid with a devil-may-care smile who comes to Alexis' aid out of nowhere when his tiny sailboat capsizes in a (melo-)dramatic storm, filmed in a style that could best be described as Giorgione-meets-1980s soapy exaggeration à la Dynasty (in which another Alexis stole the show). 

At this early stage, it's already made clear that things won't end well for the two. We've seen a police officer drag Alexis through a corridor in the opening, and in voiceover Alexis has explained that the story is about how someone became a corpse. When David shows up, Alexis helpfully points out: "That's him, the future cadaver."

What we're hearing in fact is Alexis' writing, from the narrative's second timeline. It's there that a lucid but dispassionate social worker (Aurore Broutin) and Alexis' somewhat louche French teacher, Monsieur Lefevre (Melvil Poupaud, reliably excellent), encourage him to write down what happened so a judge can make sense of Alexis' case, about which he's keeping mum. For those familiar with Chambers' novel, the boys' whirlwind love story, their strange pact and the subsequent criminal act won't be a major surprise, though virgin viewers will enjoy assembling the puzzle as the story unfolds.

In two parallel narrative threads, Ozon follows the amour fou story and the period starting immediately after David's death, when Alexis has to come to grips with the loss of his great love and his innocence. He does this by becoming the chronicler of his own misfortune. By handing over the storytelling reins to an easily impressed and inexperienced 16-year-old, Ozon has cunningly given himself permission to abandon the sophisticated narrative techniques from his most recent output and indulge in the punkier, brasher and more colorful vibes of his early work.

Since we're seeing everything from Alexis' point-of-view, the rushed quality of the early going, when he is suddenly overwhelmed by meeting David and falls head over heels in love with him, makes sense. Ditto the shifty, over-the-top depiction of David's flighty, borderline inappropriate mother (a typecast but effective Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Or the story's clumsy insistence on Alexis' obsession with death and the constant use of life and death metaphors in the dialogue. (You can imagine Lefevre circling them and writing "overkill" in the margin.) Even the way the film never quite finds room for English tomboy au pair Kate (Philippine Velge) seems the result of Alexis' mixed feelings about her, which are mainly shaped by the fact that David seems to love her.

From someone who in recent years penned the extremely sophisticated screenplays of Double Lover, Frantz and In the House, this level of writing might seem a disappointment. But coming from an obsessed teenager new to love, sex and heartbreak, it makes complete sense. In fact, Lefevre conspicuously notes that Alexis is not the best writer he's ever taught, though the young man does show promise. The result is a story that's frequently awkward and a little painful to watch but also sincere and truthful about adolescence in a way seldom seen in films about teenagers made by middle-aged directors.

Ozon's more experienced hand does make itself felt in the way his regular editor, Laure Gardette, highlights incongruities or contrasts different tones to suggest ideas that Alexis didn't necessarily think about. A prime example is the early indication of how momentous the whole story ahead will be for Alexis — explained in just a few seconds by placing two short fragments side by side revealing that Alexis changed his name to Alex over the summer. More generally, the tone of many scenes between the boys is straightforward, intimate and quite realistic. But the editing underlines the material's melodramatic bent, drawing out the near absurdity and overwhelming nature of adolescent feelings and the performative nature of young adult behavior. 

Because what do teens do when they experience things for the first time? They look to films and music for inspiration on how to deal with unfamiliar Big Feelings. This allows Ozon to pay cheeky homage not only to his own work (A Summer Dress gets an extended nod) but also touchstones of his own teenage years, including French kids' favorite La Boum (1980) and music from Rod Stewart, Bananarama and The Cure.

Interestingly, Chambers' novel wouldn't have been out of place on the shelf of these boys and certainly must have been on Ozon's shelf as a teenager. It's almost eerie to realize the extent to which this particular story feels like an urtext for Ozon's filmography. It clearly combines two recurring motifs that have surfaced in many of the films of arguably the most important queer director to emerge after the AIDS crisis — namely complex young adult characters (Young & Beautiful, In the House, Swimming Pool, Criminal Lovers, etc.) and death and mourning (Frantz, The New Girlfriend, Hideaway, Time to Leave, Under the Sand).

For the score, instead of regular composer Philippe Rombi, the director has chosen Jean-Benoit Dunckel, half of the French electronica duo Air, whose unobtrusive contribution accompanies the action well without overdosing on nostalgia. Hichame Alaouie's camerawork, on luscious, saturated Super 16 stock, simultaneously evokes the period and suggests a teenager's heightened emotions and sense of observation. But best in show in the tech department is without a doubt Pascaline Chavanne. Her costumes grab your attention, but only because that's what 1980s clothes do to our 2020 eyes, and, more specifically, that's exactly what youngsters who want to express themselves are after. And boy, do the boys of Summer of 85 succeed in grabbing our attention. 

Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Foz, Scope Pictures
Cast: Felix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, Isabelle Nanty, Laurent Fernandez, Aurore Broutin
Director-screenwriter: François Ozon, based on the novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers 
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Cinematographer: Hichame Alaouie
Production designer: Benoit Baroug
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne 
Music: Jean-Benoit Dunckel
Editor: Laure Gardette
Casting: Elodie Demey, Anais Duran

Sales: Playtime

In French and English
100 minutes