In Summer of 85 (Été 85), François Ozon puts his own spin on Aidan Chambers’ coming-of-age novel Dance On My Grave, crafting a complex, meaningful story about love, loss and growth.
“If your hobby is death, you must be mad”, says Summer of 85 (Été 85)’s young protagonist at the very beginning of François Ozon’s latest film, explaining that it’s not dead bodies that interest him, but “Death with a Capital D“. The camera follows the boy as he walks through the dark corridors of what we infer to be a prison, closely watched by a guard and wearing a jeans jacket that has seen better days.
He walks up the stairs and into the light, and lifts his head up, at last. The camera zooms into his face, and an intense gaze meets us, startling us, looking directly at us. It’s the face of an old man stuck into a teenager’s body, of someone who has seen and experienced a lot more than other boys his age have. It’s a stare that challenges us, daring us to listen to his tale about “a corpse [he] knew when he was alive”; a magnetic, bold gaze that contains rebellion and defiance but also passion, grief and overwhelming sadness.
“If death doesn’t interest you, […] if you don’t want to know about what happened to him and me, and how he became a corpse, you’d better stop right there. This is no story for you”. As the boy’s ominous words still linger, The Cure’s “In Between Days” starts playing, and the title of the film appears in a bright, cheerful shade of orange, scrawled onto the screen. And, just like that, you immediately know that you’re going to love this film.
Of course, if you’re familiar with Aidan Chambers’s 1982 young adult novel “Dance of My Grave“, from which the film was inspired, you already know all about Alex – or Henry, as he was called in the novel – and his unfortunate dealings with Death. Though Summer of 85 is quite different from Chambers’ book – mainly in terms of its setting and the way it deals with the main event of the story, Ozon’s take still manages to preserve the same kind of earnestness and authenticity that characterised Chambers’ narrative, and to tackle the same themes – not only love, but also loss, growth and identity.
At the same time, Summer of 85 also unmistakeably belongs to François Ozon, who is very much present in everything that’s left unsaid, such as the sheer amount of emotion – and palpable sexual tension – that defines its leads’ interactions, as well as the vibes emanating from its secondary characters – well-meaning but opportunistic, meddling adults who are as quick to welcome as they are to blame. From the film’s philosophical reflections on reality and identity to the Hitchcock-like way it makes us voyeurs, cleverly denying us access to “the secrets behind closed doors“, Ozon owns Summer of 85, preserving the nuances of the novel while also crafting his own story.
In fact, Ozon’s presence is mostly tangible in the mystery surrounding Alex’s past, as an important piece of information is immediately disclosed to us in Chambers’ book, but left unknown for most of the film. Summer of 85‘s narrative goes back and forth between two very different versions of Alex: a young, carefree boy having the summer of his life and a slightly older, disillusioned young man being detained for a crime he may or may not have committed, whose circumstances remain unknown to us until much later in the movie. As a result, the film manages to preserve the novel’s scrapbook-style while also approaching its subject matter in a much more suspenseful, intriguing way.
Summer of 85 begins in a prison, where Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) – who now goes by the name of Alex, is being detained, though we don’t know why. What we do know is that, whatever he may or may not have done, it all has to do with the “corpse” he mentioned at the beginning of the film. And it’s a “corpse” that we soon get to learn all about, as we are transported back to their first meeting, that “summer of 85”, and witness the two boys falling passionately in love with one another.
If young Alexis appears to be quite timid and inexperienced, the same cannot be said of David (Benjamin Voisin), who is the personification of “cool”. Carefree, confident, magnetic and with a habit of rescuing people, David is the kind of person you’re drawn to, even if you don’t know why. He’s the larger-than-life friend/lover who can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the whole world, but who can also swallow you whole, and make you disappear.
Alex and David’s love story presents us with the kind of love that consumes you and makes you feel alive, and Lefebvre and Voisin play their characters to perfection, pouring raw emotion and authenticity into Summer of 85‘s complex protagonists. It’s deeply affecting, immersive storytelling, made even more so by Ozon’s attention to detail, as the film’s stunning cinematography (Hichame Alaouie), gorgeous costumes (Pascaline Chavanne, of An Officer and A Spy) and energetic soundtrack featuring Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure and other bands of the time make the movie as 80s as it can be.
At the same time, Summer of 85 is also a wise, heart-wrenching story that looks at the unexpected moments that make life worth living, as well as the excruciatingly painful experiences that shape us into adults. Whether you’re a fan of François Ozon’s or of Chambers’ novel, you’ll be mesmerized by Summer of 85, and you’ll find yourself thinking about it a long time after the credits roll.
Summer of 85 premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2020 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.