Film

Review: Summer of 85 Weaves Death Into a Seaside Love Affair

How can you not love a story of young romance set in a candy-colored beach town in Le Treport, Normandy? All the ingredients are there. Gorgeous scenery. Two beautiful young men and a charming young woman. But there are ingredients that bring down the happiness quotient of Summer of 85, a new film from French director François Ozon. Death enters in the first minutes of the film.

The film is adapted from Aidan Chambers’ 1982 LGBTQ young adult novel, Dance on My Grave. At the time of its publication, the novel was considered groundbreaking for its nonjudgmental portrayal of homosexuality and its gay-positive theme, and it’s earned a place on many lists of books suggested for gay teens.

Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Alexis Robin (Félix Lefebvre) is a 16-year-old with a death fetish. During the opening scene, a guard is walking Alexis down a dark, prison-like corridor. In voiceover, Alexis says “Corpses are not my thing. What interests me is Death. With a capital D.” And he promises we’ll meet the corpse he knew when he was alive.

The film time-shifts, cutting back and forth between scenes of teenage happiness and romance—exciting scenes of high-speed motorbike and rollercoaster rides—and the mood of despair brought about by the death that implicates Alexis (he becomes Alex during the film).

The romance begins when Alex meets cool, charismatic 18-year-old David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) who rescues him when the small sailboat that Alex borrowed capsizes. David’s boat tows the capsized boat in and David takes him home where his mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) bathes, dresses and feeds Alexis. She lets the visitor know that David needs friends and Alexis might be one of them. It’s a subtly gay-friendly moment. Mme. Gorman runs the family boating shop started by her late husband and soon Alex is working there along with David.

At the moment they meet, you know that David is doomed—because Alex tells us David is the future corpse. They’re instantly in love and they’re together constantly. David says “Why waste time? We’re all mortals.” The sex scenes are understated, with the young lovers reciting poetry in bed. They both studied literature with Monsieur Lefevre (Melvil Poupaud), who encourages Alex to pursue his writing talent rather than the blue-collar life his father encourages. Alex’s working class parents (Isabelle Nanty, Laurent Fernandez) are tough but sympathetic when their support counts.

One of the visually interesting scenes is at a dance club, where David puts earphones on Alex so he can listen to the dreamy sounds of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing,” while everyone else dances frenetically to ear-splitting rock.

We learn later and sort of incidentally that David also seduced Lefevre. He also seduces Kate (Philippine Velge), the pretty English au pair who’s in France to improve her French. And that brings on a breach between the two young men as well as the final tragedy.

Kate is charming and pretty and there are hints that she might be a fun person to be with but her role really isn’t fleshed out. She hovers on the edge of the story. The other thing that isn’t fleshed out is David’s Jewish heritage. It’s apparently irrelevant to him and only figures in the story after his death—in shiva and cemetery scenes. It’s not clear why it’s an element of the film.

David insists they should pledge that whoever dies first, the other will dance on his grave. The film’s title should have matched its source book, Dance on My Grave—a better descriptor of the twin stories of love and death, rather than the sunny Summer of 85. (Underlying that title, of course, is the hint that this is just before the AIDS virus becomes a plague.)

Summer of 85 is worth watching for Hichame Alaouie’s delicious beach-life cinematography and for the ‘80s music by the Cure and Bananarama, among others. Otherwise, take another look at Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name from 2017 for a young men’s love story with real passion and cultural interest as well as gorgeous scenery.

Summer of 85 will screen at the Music Box Theatre on 35mm starting Friday, June 25.

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