Over the years, Francois Ozon's films have dealt with murder, masochism, incest, twincest, and human-to-rat metamorphosis. No one's sexuality in Ozon's films is ever straightforward, nor is his own implied sexual position as a filmmaker. "A director has to be polymorphously perverse," he has been quoted as saying. "I'm agreeably surprised to find that, given my own sexuality, I can project myself into other types of desire." It's something worth keeping in mind while watching the coming of age film 'Summer of 85', based on Aidan Chambers' 1982 young adult novel 'Dance on Your Grave'.
"If death doesn't interest you, if you don't want to know about what happened to him and me, and how he became a corpse, you'd better stop right there. This is no story for you." As these ominous words still linger, The Cure's 'In Between Days' starts playing, and the title of the film appears in a bright, cheerful shade of orange, scrawled onto the screen.
While enjoying his summer holidays in Normandy, sixteen-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) capsizes in a sailboat at sea and is rescued by eighteen-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin), who happens to be passing in his own boat. Carefree, confident, magnetic and with a habit of rescuing people, David is the kind of person you're drawn to, even if you don't know why. For the first part of the film, we watch the exciting waltz of uncertain courtship - of two people orbiting one another, feeling out the feelings between them, dropping and interpreting clues, inching ever closer together.
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.
Of course, this is told in a suspenseful, intriguing and Ozon-like fashion. He's a big fan of telling a story in the reverse order, and the viewer learns early on, via flashback, 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 draw comparison to Luca Guadagnino's 'Call Me By Your Name' and Anthony Minghella's 'The Talented Mr. Ripley', it's only similar in terms of aesthetics. Mid-80s Normandy is stunningly shot on Super 16mm by cinematographer Hichame Alaouie, emphasising a sun-dappled palate of vibrant yellows, blues and oranges. The soundtrack of hits from Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, Rod Steward and Bananarama, 'Summer of 85' also has all the trappings of a mid-eighties outing.
Both boys have their natural emotional reactions to love and loss discouraged by society, hinting at why they develop obsessions with risk and death.
Unlike 'Call Me by Your Name', the era's homophobia does not go unmentioned. In one of the film's more striking moments, the police attempt to break-up a fight between David and a group of local boys who have provoked him with a homophobic slur. Later, the police reuse the slur as they try to violently remove Alexis from David's grave. Both boys have their natural emotional reactions to love and loss discouraged by society, hinting at why they develop obsessions with risk and death.
Similarly, where Guadagnino didn't grasp the power imbalance between his characters (a confident twentysomething and a teenager so hormonally tortured that he finds a novel new utility for an apricot), Ozon is unafraid to present David in a more selfish, less than flattering light.
The performances of the three leads are all very strong, particularly considering some of the more enigmatic characterisation (despite an impressive turn from Velge, we're never really sure what Kate makes of all of this chaos) which at times helps and at other times hinders the storytelling.
The real stumbling block of 'Summer of 85' is that it feels like a movie of two parts - the first detailing that carefree summer romance, and the second the fallout when the honeymoon period comes to an end - but the second half doesn't entirely gel with the first. In particular, there is a sudden shift into a more farcical mode when Alexis visits a morgue dressed in drag and engages in banter with his mum that really clunks.
Ozon's 'Summer of 85' is a bittersweet film, one that ultimately encourages its audience to embrace the joy and the heartache of first love, along with the ephemerality of having a life-changing presence in your life.