French director François Ozon (Frantz, By The Grace of God) goes back thirty five years for his nostalgic teen drama Summer of 85.
Félix Lefebvre plays Alex, a 16-year-old facing a serious police charge relating to the death of his friend, David (Benjamin Voisin). With the help of his teacher, he is able to piece together the weeks leading up to the tragedy.
Told by Alex in flashbacks, we follow his meeting with David, a charismatic local who saves Alex’s life and invites him to work in his family shop. The pair become lovers, but Alex’s feelings cloud how he sees events both before and after David’s death.
François Ozon’s film has two distinct halves, the first dealing with love and the second with death. The former is where the story really takes hold, introducing a relationship that will feel familiar to many. We see the lingering looks, the endless evening adventures at bars and fairgrounds, and the sense of immortality that comes with being young. Despite the present-day scenes informing us that tragedy was to come, there is a joyous celebration in following them on their endless motorcycle rides, set to a bouncy if predictable 80s soundtrack (The Cure’s In Between Days bookmarks the tale).
It is also very much a story of love, not sex. Coming-of-age dramas can weigh themselves down with bedroom scenes, often stealing headlines from the story itself (Call Me By Your Name’s ‘peach moment’, for example). Ozon leaves some things to the imagination. “You want me to describe what happened behind that door” our narrator says, “but I won’t tell you”. It’s a reminder that this is a story being told by the protagonist, who wishes you to view his romance through his rose-tinted perspective of love, not lust.
Once Summer of 85’s tragedy unfolds, however, the pace dips and the latter half of the film becomes an emotional autopsy – how Alex deals with grief, and his means of expressing it. It’s all very contemplative, with many scenes spent looking out at the beach. While well written and acted, you can’t shake the idea that the film should have ended twenty minutes earlier. Once we establish that the idea of David may have been more important to Alex than the person himself, the rest of the story is taken up by scenes of grief and a bungled break-in to a morgue.
The slowing pace doesn’t compromise the performances, however, as Lefebvre’s Alex remains beguiling from beginning to end. Full of the awkwardness of teenage years, it’s easy to see why he would fall for the magnetic grin of the reckless David. Voisin gives the cool energy that would steal the heart of both Alex, all under the nose of David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a widow with a special brand of imposing friendliness. Floating through the boys’ relationship is British Au Pair Kate (Philippine Velge), a character who never quite develops beyond her proximity to Alex.
While it is structured like a mystery, Summer of 85 is best viewed as a story of young love, and the impossible perfection with which we view those first rushes of romance. It’s entertaining, even if Ozon’s regular themes of love, death, and guilt mean the story trails off toward the end.