Summer of 85 is a weightless trifle, built on an unsophisticated narrative and featuring a patently ridiculous ending.
The trailer for Summer of 85, the latest from Cannes perennial François Ozon, makes the film look something like Call Me By Your Name (2017) transposed to the crime-thriller key of René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960) — a fairly intriguing proposition in itself. When first introduced, angel-faced Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a working-class teen who lives on the coast of Normandy, is spending the afternoon on his friend’s boat, though the sight of an approaching storm soon causes him to panic and capsize. Fortunately, debonair David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) — an 18-year-old who later displays a taste for danger and a talent for dissembling — swiftly sails to his rescue, after which the two strike up a friendship and, eventually, a covert romance. All this is conveyed in extended, past-tense flashbacks, since the film periodically pulls back to the present, where David is dead and Alexis is being investigated for some crime. Naturally, Ozon plays coy with both the nature of and the circumstances surrounding each, but here, he has a face-saving justification: the story framework is being provided by none other than Alexis, a promising literature student who, at the encouragement of his teacher (Melvil Poupaud), purges his remembrances into fervid prose. Because how else could this torrid summer’s tale possibly be told.
Apart from a reference to Ozon’s own 1996 short A Summer Dress, the result is about what you’d expect given the basic setup and the storytelling verve of an angsty teen with literary aspirations. Alexis’ blissful recollections are everywhere shadowed by the threat of death, and when things go south, as they inevitably must, Summer of 85 broaches the familiar matters of romantic and creative projection. For the film’s unsophisticated narrative and patently ridiculous ending, Ozon can perhaps share the blame with British author Aidan Chambers, who wrote the 1982 young adult novel, Dance On My Grave, on which Summer of 85 is based. The perfunctory treatment of Alexis’ social world and class standing, however, falls squarely on the filmmaker. But in this, as in everything else, Ozon has a potential out: Summer of 85 ends on yet another boat ride, with Alexis now musing meaningfully on a desire to “escape [his] own story,” redoubling the possibility of imaginative distortion on his part, and plausibly, if glibly accounting for the selective realization of his home life. The impression of this final fillip, though, is not so much of a daring postmodern flourish as of a merely careless, neglectful gesture. In rendering Chambers’ source novel as a weightless trifle, Ozon has ensured that his own audience remains out at sea.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.
Published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 2.