Originally intended for a Cannes unveiling this past May, François Ozon’s blue-skied coming-out-of-age romance Summer of 85 would have been a fitting film for the Croisette, filled with vistas not dissimilar to those one would have seen post-premiere. His flawed, bittersweet drama feels less at home screening at this year’s virtual Toronto film festival, months after its French theatrical release, but like any potent summer fling, it’s how it makes us feel out of the sun that truly counts and while there’s tenderness and fire here, it all burns out a little too fast, the embers stamped out by the reality of September.
Based on the British 1982 YA novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers, Ozon’s adaptation transports events to Northern France focusing on Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a death-obsessed 16-year-old in need of a friend during a long hot summer. After capsizing a boat on the sea, he’s saved by David (Benjamin Voisin), confident and slightly older, who immediately takes him under his wing. The two become fast friends before something else more passionate quickly takes over. But like the book it’s based on, Ozon’s storytelling informs us early on that David dies and through flashbacks, we discover how.
With a teasing voiceover, Ozon initially plays with the beats of a noir thriller suggesting something more nefarious at the film’s centre, making us question how involved Alex might have been in David’s death, and there are echoes of 2003’s Swimming Pool in its themes of obsession and the therapeutic power of writing. In order to process what happened, Alex is urged to document the summer months, to figure out both his emotions and the specifics of how David died and it becomes one of the film’s more piercing elements. The trauma Alex must face up to is made slightly more bearable by his ability to turn himself into a character in a story, a similar idea to one that was explored in Safy Nebbou’s Who You Think I Am last year although in this instance, there’s no room for fabrication, just a growing awareness of how perspectives can wildly differ within a relationship.
Looking back on our romantic history can lead to an unhealthy amount of rose-tinted nostalgia but, with a deeper analysis, it can also lead us to consider situations from the other side, a vital realisation that feelings are never entirely identical. For Alex, it’s a lesson we can tell will imprint in his memory but for us, there’s something about the film that isn’t quite heady enough to stick. While the book it was based on caused a stir at the time for its progressive subject matter, the years since have seen queer stories of this ilk become more commonplace both on page and on screen and while some cliches are artfully sidestepped, too much of the film feels overfamiliar. One of Ozon’s smartest decisions is to avoid centring the coming out narrative and the many formulaic scenes that come with it and there is a quiet, well-acted subtlety to how the pair’s parents deal with their relationship. But while there’s a natural, unforced intimacy between the two, their burgeoning connection is sweet but insubstantial. They share an interesting discussion about mortality (Alex’s obsession with death exists because he’s never really experienced grief as opposed to David whose father died the year before) but it’s mostly paper-thin, if pleasant, flirting and when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t strike us hard enough.
There’s strong work from both Lefebvre and Voisin but Ozon doesn’t give their characters enough distinguishable colour and so there’s a limit to how much they can bring to the table. Unlike the woozy love at its centre, Summer of 85 doesn’t haunt in the way that it should. It fades when it should burn.