Summer of 85

François Ozon's latest, a melodrama following a gay teen romance that blossoms during an idyllic summer on the French coast, has plenty of surface pleasures, but at times it feels about as substantial as an 80s pop promo

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 19 Oct 2020
  • Summer of 85
Film title: Summer of 85
Director: François Ozon
Starring: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, Isabelle Nanty, Laurent Fernandez
Release date: 23 Oct
Certificate: 15

In the films of mercurial French filmmaker François Ozon, a trip to the beach is always eventful. Sometimes it’s a place of discovery or serenity (A Summer Dress, Time to Leave) and at others, of danger and pain (Under the Sand, See the Sea). In romantic melodrama Summer of 85, the coastal setting of a small tourist town in Normandy proves both salty and sweet; it’s the arena for a euphoric teen love story that turns tragic. That’s no spoiler. We learn early on that David (Voisin), the 18-year-old who rescues the younger Alex (Lefebvre) from a boating mishap, is now a corpse. We also find out that Alex, our narrator, is in some trouble with the law as a result.

While this mystery is slowly resolved in the present, Ozon intersects sun-scorched flashbacks showing how the fast friendship between the blond, angelic Alex and his dark-haired, roguishly handsome rescuer (the boys would make a convincing Wham! tribute act) blossomed into an intense summer fling. These scenes overflow with adolescent yearning, but don’t exactly have depth. The performances are engaging, but with large sections of their romance enfolding to montages of the boys sailing shirtless on the Channel or riding into the sunset on David’s motorbike, it can sometimes feel like we’re watching an 80s music video. Curiously it isn’t a synth-pop track that emerges as the young lovers’ main theme song, but the sandpaper-rough rasp of Rod Stewart on his 70s slow jam Sailing.

Ozon loves a tricksy structure, and when it’s revealed that the flashbacks unfolding before our eyes are a writing assignment Alex has been given by his literature teacher, Summer of '85’s faint whiff of ‘What I Did Last Summer’ school report suddenly makes perfect sense. And given that we’re told Alex isn’t the greatest writer in the world, it acts as a built-in and wryly self-reflexive defence for the film’s storytelling shortcomings and soapy plot turns.

However, there are plenty of pleasures beyond the over-familiar and slightly clumsy summer-love narrative. The gorgeous 16mm cinematography and perfect art design that makes us feel like we’re watching a B-side to one of Éric Rohmer's '80s Comedies and Proverbs. There’s something refreshingly and so typically Ozonian too in the lightness of touch shown in Summer of 85's most tragic moments, with the emotions bubbling over feeling achingly real, even when the story getting us there is rushed and artificial.

The beach on which the boys’ romance plays out, incidentally, is a pebble one. Like the film, it’s rough and slightly uncomfortable, but it’s still a gorgeous place to spend a couple of hours.

Released 23 Oct by Curzon; certificate 15