Mischa Alexander reviews François Ozon’s Summer of 85, a touching queer love story set in France in the 1980s.
Summer romance films are never going to get old, are they? There’s something about the bright colours, the enviable climate and the tranquil settings that make all of us lean in and wish we could watch the sunset over the ocean with our partners. It’s a popular genre that filmmakers and audience frequently respond to: as long as there is a clear sense of chemistry in the lead romance to give us the feels, I imagine we’ll keep liking them. Throw in a good soundtrack and a plethora of floral shirts and you end up with Summer of 85, a French romance from director François Ozon.
Based on the novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers, Summer of 85 focuses on Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a young adult living on the French coast who has an unhealthy obsession with thoughts about death. After being rescued from a capsized boat, he meets David (Benjamin Voisin): a young, attractive, energetic man who takes him under his wing and begins a strong and passionate friendship with him. It’s not long before Alex’s thoughts turn from ‘la mort’ to ‘la petite mort’, but as unexpected and difficult challenges come their way, Alex finds himself being asked to fulfil a very strange and emotionally difficult oath.
A lot of what I want to talk about regarding this film lies in spoiler territory, which would lessen the emotional impact of seeing it live. On top of the plot described above, a separate narrative runs through the film that provides an emotional contrast to the main storyline, giving extra clarity and foreshadowing to the scenes you’re witnessing. The effect is very powerful, as your enjoyment of the relationship is undercut by the knowledge of how it will be resolved. Impressively, this doesn’t lessen the experience of watching it play out. All of this culminates in a moving and bizarrely memorable final sequence that, despite knowing it is coming, still surprises you.
All of these positive points would be worthless without solid lead performances carrying the film. Both Lefebvre and Voisin do an excellent job, Lefebvre especially. His character borders on slightly unlikeable at times, but is pulled back to the realm of enjoyable due to his solid emotional performance. Meanwhile, Voisin delivers a performance so full of energy and likability that you begin to understand why Alex is so transfixed by him. There’s a nice battle of innocence versus experience in the realms of love between the two characters, with both elements delivered in a non-clichéd way (I will point out, however, that Voisin’s character does play into some negative tropes regarding bisexuality, so points off for that). The rest of the actors all deliver strong performances as well, especially Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as David’s mother, and these performances really draw you into the story and conflicts central to the film.
The central relationship’s energy and warmth are also mirrored in the film’s visuals, offering a gorgeous palette of blues and yellows that leave you feeling intentionally positive and light. I previously mentioned the contrasting dual narrative—this is also reflected in the colour scheme, with the more morbid sequences reflected in a muted and darker version of the same blues and yellows. Not only does this successfully reinforce the moods each side of the narrative aims for, but it provides a clear reinforcement of the themes of love and loss, as the world stays the same, despite being interpreted differently.
This is also done through the music, which has a nice 80s vibe throughout and is fun to listen to. But the most memorable part of the soundtrack is Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”, which is played twice at two of the most emotional sequences in the film, working on both occasions despite their different tones.
Easy comparisons could be made between this and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, but I’d positively compare it to “San Junipero” (from season 3 of Black Mirror) both in its tone and 80s aesthetic, but also its depiction of relationships of opposites. Summer of 85 walks a fine line with a story as focused on love as it is with death, but comes out strongly to deliver a moving story, which is told in a way that keeps you guessing and worrying the whole way through. This is a film that is a lot of fun, even when fun isn’t perhaps the best word.
Summer of 85 is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 23 October.
Words by Mischa Alexander
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