Summer Of 85 ****
Starring: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud
Director: François Ozon
Over the last two decades, François Ozon has risen from an indie Queer filmmaker to becoming one of France’s leading directors. With César nominations aplenty, an Ozon film would normally come with the fanfare of a Cannes debut, but obviously, this year that hasn’t happened. But after a successful run in theatres across the Channel this summer, Ozon serves us an adaptation of the 1980s YA novel Dance On My Grave by Adrian Chambers, in which the director returns to his roots, depicting a story of young gay love and sexual awakening.
It is the summer of 1985 and sixteen year-old Alex (Lefebvre) capsizes his sailboat off the coast of Northern France. The handsome and charismatic David (Voisin) is nearby and rescues him from the water, taking him home to clean up. David has recently lost his father and been keeping bad company ever since, so his mother (Bruni Tedeschi) is very keen that he has found a wholesome new friend. But the boys’ relationship develops into something much deeper, with Alex becoming completely obsessed with the older boy. The early days of their relationship are heavenly, until a British au pair (Velge) arrives and distracts David’s attention, planting a toxic seed of jealousy between them.
From the outset, Ozon layers a foreboding voiceover onto the beautifully filtered sun-drenched vistas, warning of corpses, death and guilt to come. The narrative pendulums between past and present, where Alex has been arrested and social workers talk of the crime he has committed. It feels like we’re watching the prelude to a revenge thriller, with tension building around the seemingly blissful couple, stumbling unwittingly into their fate.
Alex is looking back on his relationship, sometimes with nostalgia and sometimes with the benefit of hindsight. We see everything from his perspective, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that not everything is entirely as he sees it and there are definitely two different sides to this story. David might have been the knight in shining armour (or sailor in shining sailboat) who rescued him from the sea, but he is distinctly far from perfect, but the rose-tinted glasses of First Love do not allow Alex to see it. However, we see it in full focus by the time we reach the third act.
When the book was released in 1982, it caused a stir for its depiction of homosexuality. Now, much of its content has been made redundant by a slew of LGBT+ cinema that has depicted every element of its coming out narrative from every possible angle. Ozon is wise to avoid these elements and unsensationalise their sexualities by removing this as an issue for any of the characters. There is some reference to its context – the 80s was still not a kind time for young gay men coming out – but there is no reaction from either sets of parents that their sons are gay.
That being said, a big strand of the book’s purpose has been removed, leaving behind a fairly straightforward narrative that relies on the chemistry and charisma of its leads. Thankfully, both possess these in abundance. Benjamin Voisin makes for a suitably enigmatic love interest, but it’s the endearingly charming Félix Lefebvre that dominates this film, delightfully affable but with his puppy-dog syrupiness subsiding for anguish as we watch him founder in David’s tempestuous wake.
Its sleepy seaside town is luscious on-screen, with its Instagramable cliffs and pastel painted houses a succulent backdrop for the story. Its soundtrack is jam-packed with 80s classics, while the couple’s hair and fashion take up narrative significance as well as being just visual signifiers for context. Ozon goes to great lengths to anchor the film in the 80s;maybe too much, at times. There’s no doubt that when the book was published it held great significance for its audience and for Ozon too. Now, it holds considerably less for children of this new century, but its big screen adaptation does well in adapting its source for a young audience today. But you can’t help but wish for a little more in character development, or at least just giving Alex some gumption when he learns the truth about David when the rose glasses finally come off.
OUT ON 23RD OCTOBER 2020 IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND, RELEASED BY CURZON.