“So we invent the people we love?” So asks protagonist Alexis as he tries to grapple with the tragic end of his first romance in François Ozon’s (8 Women, By The Grace Of God) latest teenage coming-of-age drama, based on Aidan Chambers’ YA novel Dance on Your Grave. Similarly, Summer of 85 deals with this question in ways that are not always satisfactory but remain thought-provoking.
While enjoying his summer holidays, sixteen-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) capsizes in a sail boat at sea and is rescued by eighteen-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin) who happens to be passing in his own boat. Alexis soon falls for David and the two spend a dream-like six weeks together, which comes to an abrupt end when David suddenly turns his attention to Kate (Philippine Velge), an English girl on a trip to Normandy to learn French. Told in flash-back, the viewer learns early on that the summer ends in tragedy with the death of David: the film proceeds as Alexis details his own involvement. After being caught by the police for a mysterious reason left to be unravelled by the narrative, Alexis is encouraged by his literature teacher (Melvil Poupaud) to write down his experience to both explain his actions and act as a form of personal catharsis.
While Summer of 85 may initially appear similar to Call Me By Your Name, for the most part it remains similar only in terms of aesthetics (beyond sharing curious representations of their female characters). Ozon’s mid-80’s Normandy a beautifully shot sun-dappled palate of vibrant yellows, blues and oranges, which eventually give way to darker hues as the summer story gives way to the sombre tones of a bleak September. The performances are all very strong, particularly in the light of some of the more enigmatic characterisation which at times aids and at other times hampers the storytelling.
With a soundtrack of hits from The Cure, Rod Steward and Bananarama, Summer of 85 certainly has all the trappings of a mid-eighties outing. Similarly, the era’s homophobia does not go unmentioned and is clearly an element in the experience of both boys: indeed in one of the film’s more striking moments, the visual motif of the police attempting to forcefully disband a fight between David and a group of local boys who have provoked him with the use of a homophobic slur is repeated later as the police try to violently remove Alexis from David’s grave. However for the most part these elements are not permitted to overshadow either David or Alexis’s stories: instead, Summer of 85 explores how overarching public sentiments intersect with and shape personal narratives. Both boys find their natural emotional reactions to love and loss are discouraged by their society, hinting at why they develop obsessions with risk and death.
Summer of 85 feels decidedly like a movie of two parts, the first detailing a (relatively) carefree summer romance and the second the fallout when the honeymoon period comes to an end. At times, however, the second half doesn’t entirely feel like a satisfying continuation of the first. In particular, the sudden shift into a more farcical mode can perhaps be attributed to Alexis’s own claim that he finds it easier to view himself as a character while writing his own version of events: but even so, Alexis’s dilemma – of whether he ever really knew David or fell for a his own idea of David – does not seem to be as embedded in the first half as it could have been. However, this may be both Alexis and Ozon’s attempt to grapple with the ever-shifting face of grief. Many of the characters, after all, are in mourning for somebody, and if there is one thing Summer of 85 tells us, it is that grief comes in many guises.