François Ozon gives us a histrionic dose of photolove drama in this watchable if not especially profound young-love heartbreaker, which earnestly insists on the resounding emotional power of Rod Stewart’s classic track Sailing. It’s based on Dance on My Grave, the pioneering YA novel of gay experience by British author Aidan Chambers, published in 1982.
This is a very 80s story, and the picture quality has that washed-out summer-faded quality that reminded me of the era’s denim and the films of Eric Rohmer. Félix Lefebvre plays Alex, a teenage boy who comes to a seaside town in Normandy with his parents. One day, while sailing his dinghy, Alex gets into difficulties, and is miraculously saved by David (Benjamin Voisin) a boy Alex’s age who happens to be sailing his own dinghy. There is an instant spark between them and they begin an affair in which David is clearly the dominant partner. Things are complicated when an English au pair, Kate (Philippine Velge) befriends them both, and the story is told in retrospect with Alex in police custody for reasons that are not clear.
At first, Summer of 85 seems to occupy a generic Venn-overlap between a summer of sexual awakening, a coming-of-age drama and a dark psychological thriller. Alex at first icily breaks the fourth wall to say something chilling to us directly – a mannerism that is not repeated and misleads us about the nature of the film. As time goes on, it becomes a soapier, soppier tale in which the lovers make solemn oaths to each other to dance on the grave of the one who dies first, a gesture easily misunderstood.
In some ways, the older generation upstage the leads. David’s widowed mother is played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who makes something genially eccentric of the role. When Alex is brought dripping wet to the family home after his dinghy mishap, she insists on taking him for a bath, undressing him and then, after a smirk at his nakedness, remarking that his mother can, indeed, be proud of him. Like much of the film, it’s not clear how intentional the absurdity is.
Similarly odd is M Lefèvre, played by Melvil Poupaud wearing glasses, horrible clothes and sporting a bald patch. This is Alex’s weirdly predatory literature teacher who encourages his creative writing, and does everything but rub his thighs with his sweaty hands – and is especially keen on Alex’s autobiographical piece about the relationship with David, to whom Lefèvre may have offered a close mentorship the year before. There is tragedy in this story, but the grownup questions of guilt and loss are de-emphasised.
Summer of 85 is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 23 October.