“This is a gorgeous movie that accomplishes quite a lot, but it’s sometimes too opaque explore its world and ideas as deeply or as immediately as it should.“
by Ken Bakely
There are moments in François Ozon’s Summer of 85 that are miraculously enveloping and evocative; they plunge into the film’s setting, its characters, and its vivid period aesthetic, making for something at once textured and messy. It’s an accomplishment that the film can’t piece together as frequently as it wants to, but for a story like this one – caught in the frenzied energy of young love, discovery, and grief – there’s real power to those events, and they carry. In its titular era, in a seaside town in France, the film follows Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), an uncertain, death-obsessed teenager who narrates the proceedings from some future point. Early on, we learn the beats of the story. We know that he will meet 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin), who is magnificently handsome, reckless, and confident. We know they will begin a brief but swooning relationship. We know that David will suddenly die a matter of weeks later. We know that Alexis will be arrested for some unknown offense shortly afterwards. The structure of the film, in essence, is to fill in the gaps between these facts – to retrace the steps of a blissful, doomed romance and all the drama and emotion surrounding it.
Ozon’s direction is as sharp and intrepid as it’s ever been, thus giving us those sparkling sequences when the film seems to leap off the screen and surround us – it’s his intention, after all. But a major issue that Summer of 85 encounters is in the film’s very setup, which necessarily positions us as past-tense observers amid these present-tense events. The script – which is adapted from Aidan Chambers’ novel Dance on My Grave – lumbers around at times, caught between its dueling approaches. At times, it comes off as split, glassy, and distant. Unlike the intensity of its buildup, it can’t follow on this and deliver on what should be the most harshly felt parts of the film: David’s death and what comes after. Alexis is a difficult, jarring protagonist. His adolescent brain leads him to make often inexplicable choices, made by a boy who’s spinning out of control, unable to fathom the magnitude of who he has just lost, even when he couldn’t process all the emotions he was feeling during the relationship. The script can’t fully give this character the full emotional journey it wants to – although this is nothing against Lefebvre’s performance, which is fierce and fearless. It’s practically startling in how effortlessly he conveys the inner-workings of Alexis’s psyche, as direct to us as Voisin’s David is purposefully mysterious.
They have a real chemistry – tentative and sudden, all at once – that charges their many scenes together and. In conjunction with Ozon’s neon-vivid aesthetic, this is what makes so much of the film as well-imagined and realized as it is, even when the rest can’t keep up. Summer of 85 wants us to feel the proceedings in as personal and intimate a way as possible. To whatever degree that Ozon can reconcile the film’s clunky shifts in past and present perspective to the heady story, it’s when he softly presents things through the lens of remembering; the attention he gives to the locations, clothes, and songs (you may find yourself putting Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” on repeat after watching this movie) that anchor our conception of Alexis and David’s relationship. It’s the visual and experiential language of memory, of a summer when even the tragedies assume a heartrending kind of beauty. There’s no one scene that does it – it’s a coalescing vibe. It’s then when the movie comes the closest to fully assuming the omnipresent swell it otherwise can only achieve in fits and starts. Ozon wants us to become caught up in it – the moments, the desire – and deliver an emotional frenzy so sweeping that it feels dangerous to us, but all too logical to the young protagonist. The problem is that the film’s setup and delivery is simply too conventional and too distancing to really meet that sense of passion. This is a gorgeous movie that accomplishes quite a lot, but it’s sometimes too opaque explore its world and ideas as deeply or as immediately as it should.