Queer love stories too often end in tragedy, yet Summer of 85 ends with both death and celebration. François Ozon’s stirring coming-of-age fable refreshingly honours love. The film gives audiences a summer fling during the summer of 1985 (obviously…) before the AIDS crisis exploded into public consciousness. Ozon’s film rewrites the narrative and lets its young men live and love freely without fear.
However, death hangs over Summer of 85. This is a François Ozon film, after all. Sex and death are two of the French director’s favourite themes. However, he’s never used them quite as beautifully as he has here. The film is a stirring essay that uses a young man’s obsession with death to teach him how to live.
A Crime of Passion
This film may be Ozon’s most personal work yet as tells the story of sixteen-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) discovering himself anew. Alexis ruminates in voiceover about his fascination with death, particularly as pertains to a tragedy involving his first love, David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin). One can presume that David’s life found a violently passionate end from the narrative that unfolds. Alexis speaks elusively about the circumstances, clearly seduced by the idea of holding his former flame within as a living ghost. David’s absence penetrates the “present day” scenes as a caseworker (Aurore Broutin) assess Alexis for a psychological profile. She refers to possible charges, which suggest David died in a crime of passion.
Alexis recalls his affair with David as the film flashes back through the summer. Out sailing on a boat, Alexis falls asleep. He awakens to discover that the brilliant sunshine off the shores of Normandy quickly transformed into a violent storm. The boat capsizes, but, like a knight on a white stallion, David sails along to his rescue. The bond quickly when David invites Alexis back home to warm up and change. A peculiar encounter with David’s mother (a wonderful Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) informs the relatively modest Alexis that the Gormans are open and carefree.
Death imprints itself on the boys’ mutual desire. Even when Alexis warms himself in the bubble bath that Mrs. Gorman draws, he likens the tub to a coffin. Despite the palpable libidinousness in the air, or perhaps because of it, Alexis’s mind wanders to stiffs.
Sex and Death
A few casual glances inform the boys as to what’s up. However, sparks fly from the moment they lock eyes on the boat. Not since Carol has a single glance sparked such electricity.
The spark between the boys jolts Alexis like a defibrillator. Summer of 85 refreshingly spins the coming-out-of-the-closet narrative on its head by eschewing the usual foreplay of are they or aren’t they. There are no explosively dramatic coming-out moments. No pining. No questioning. The revelations are internal and intimate, shared only between the two boys or a knowing look from a parent. Since the film doesn’t dwell on uncertainties and hesitations, providing safe space for the boys and others like them, it jumps headlong into their summer whirlwind. Lefebvre and Voisin have magnetic chemistry, offering playful yet vulnerable performances. Lefebvre is particularly good in the lead, bravely channeling emotional depths as Alexis reflects on love and loss.
Ozon beautifully realises this summer in Normandy through a nostalgic hue. Shooting on sun-soaked 16mm film and layering the soundtrack with banger hits from the ’80s, the film chronicles the last chapter of blissful innocence before the AIDS crisis changed everything. This is a film about savouring the moment and embracing life. For example, when the boys are out having fun at a club, they dance energetically to the beat. Then David slips his Walkman headphones over Alexis’s ears and drowns out the distraction of the club, slowing down the moment and letting them be close and alone as the world dances around them. The boys dance to markedly different beats, however, as Ozon notes throughout the film. David strays, interested in other boys and other girls, leaving Alexis rebuffed and confused one time too many.
“Dance on My Grave”
Death looms largest in the film, however, through the proposal David makes. He wants to laugh death in the face having known grief nakedly since losing his father. David asks Alexis to promise to dance on his grave if he dies first. For a boy with a fetish for the other side of mortality, this is no indecent proposal. As the film weaves between the summer fun and the grave matter in the days that follow, Alexis’s perceived crime gradually reveals itself. It culminates with a bizarrely beautiful number in which he grabs the Walkman once again. He hits play and Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” wafts into the film, celebrating the crashing waves of love and death that brought them together at sea.
Ozon adapts Aidan Chambers’ novel Dance on My Grave, which he says he first read at the age of seventeen in the summer of ’85. This tender psychosexual drama covers familiar Ozon terrain and, in some ways, is the film he’s been building towards his entire career. As the director has said previously, its influence is everywhere in his work. Just look at the spectre of death in Under the Sand, the teacher-student relationship and destructive jealousy of In the House, the cross-dressing in The New Girlfriend, and the sexy summer heat of Swimming Pool, just to name a few. Chambers’ novel permeates Ozon’s work in the way that “Sailing” transforms Alexis’s life. Books and songs guide transformative experiences and stick with us forever. It’s no accident that by returning to this story that Ozon delivers one of his best films yet.
Summer of ’85 premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.