The seaside has invariably functioned as a transformative, transgressive space in the films of François Ozon: as a site of both disturbing and liberating incidents and encounters. A coming-of-age teen love story, Summer of ’85 takes the ever-prolific writer-director back to the beach after the chillier urban locations of his twisty erotic thriller Double Lover (2017) and the sensitive child abuse exposé By the Grace of God (2019). If there’s a slightly recycled quality to the end result, which sometimes has the feel of an Ozon ‘Greatest Hits’ package, the new film still emerges as fairly appealing, especially in its more assured first half.
From Angel (2007) to Ricky (2009) to The New Girlfriend (2014), Ozon has often adapted interesting works by British authors who British filmmakers have tended to ignore. Here he turns his attention to Aidan Chambers’s celebrated 1982 YA novel Dance on My Grave, which charts a summer romance between two boys. Nimbly shifting the setting from Southend-on-Sea to Le Tréport in Normandy, Ozon also moves the time period of the text on by a few years, the better to invest the screenplay with details and memories from his own adolescence.
The first meeting between the central couple is romantic to a semi-parodic degree: 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin) arrives on cue to rescue 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) when the latter gets into trouble on the sea. With the confident David taking him home and introducing him to his garrulous mother (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), it’s not long before Alex is smitten by this born seducer. The pair’s friendship soon develops into a romance involving Suzuki rides, reading Verlaine and first sex – as well as the pact that gave Chambers’s text its title: whichever of the boys outlives the other will dance on his grave in an act of defiance against death.
Adopting a dual time frame that interweaves the joy (and eventual disillusionment) of the romance with its autumnal aftermath, Summer of ’85 soon establishes itself as another of Ozon’s explorations of Thanatos and Eros.
A soundtrack that includes Bananarama and The Cure keeps proceedings buoyant, while the period accoutrements feel inhabited and not over-stressed. Returning to Super 16, Ozon and cinematographer Hichame Alaouie, in their first collaboration, give the images a seductive glow without ever quite recapturing the bracing tactility that characterised the director’s films up to 2009’s Le Refuge.
The best scene borrows directly from Claude Pinoteau’s La Boum (1980), with David placing headphones on Alex when they’re on the dancefloor so that another song – Rod Stewart’s Sailing (an on-the-nose but effective choice) fills his ears, and ours. It’s the film’s most beautiful moment, but when the song is redeployed later its impact is muted, and a pivotal sequence falls flat.
That goes for much of the second half, in which the film, itself never quite recovering from a character’s demise, resorts to by-the-numbers melodrama and some tonally uncertain scenes. A casualty of Ozon’s steadily maturing vision has been the sharpness and playfulness of his wit. (It’s still there, but only in subtler moments of self-citation, such as when a dress that David suggests Alex wears bears the pattern of the one that liberated the uptight lover in Ozon’s seminal short A Summer Dress .) And while the movements between time periods are elegantly handled, it’s disappointing that more experimental elements aren’t included to match the postmodern techniques of Chambers’s novel.
Where the film does succeed, outclassing the Ozon-derivative Call Me by Your Name (2017), for one, is in its sensitivity to the boys’ contrasting personalities, family situations and social circumstances, and its unsentimental acknowledgement that falling in love often involves the construction of an idealised image. Lefebvre, with his slight resemblance to River Phoenix, conveys that awakening poignantly; evoking In the House (2012), this film is another Künstlerroman, with Alex encouraged to write about his experiences by a teacher (an excellent Melvil Poupaud), and finding meaning in the process.
Voisin skilfully reveals the darker side of David’s charm, while Bruni-Tedeschi is characteristically vivid in a somewhat problematic role. As Alex’s parents, Isabelle Nanty and Laurent Fernandez provide some of the film’s most affecting, unstressed moments.
The upbeat coda, with a character finding, in typical Ozon fashion, a substitute of sorts for a departed partner, feels forced. What lingers is the film’s most ambivalent image of coupledom: the two boys on the dancefloor in the club, moving in the same space to different songs.