By John Battiston.
The jarring transition from the broodingly dour opening of Summer of 85 into the thick of its titular milieu is only the first of the film’s many overtly purposeful choices. By smash-cutting from the aftermath of sixteen-year-old Alex’s (Félix Lefebvre) ostensible arrest — overlaid with aloof, resigned narration and capped by a baggy-eyed fourth-wall break — to an airy synthpop track and a sun-dappled beachscape, writer-director François Ozon presents a barefaced harbinger of the film’s juggling act between hypnagogic teen romance and sullen coming-of-age tragedy.
From there, Alex’s arrest and the lead-up to any potential disciplinary action act as a framing device for the preceding six weeks, when he develops an intense summer romance with eighteen-year-old fishing-shop operator David (Benjamin Voisin). Their meet-cute, in which David swoops in to the rescue after Alex’s sailboat capsizes off the coast of Normandy, plays out beneath an obsidian thunderstorm, yet another in a series of portents that remind us — along with the peppered-in fast-forwards to Alex’s contemplation of events we have yet to witness — that imminent doom and gloom await.
As the main narrative continues, Alex and David begin to not-so-gradually integrate into each other’s lives, working together in the fishing shop by day, hitting the boardwalk and discotheques by night. Friendly ribbing quickly turn into longing glances, which soon give way to behind-closed-doors trysts. But while Alex’s borderline iambic narration illuminates just how deep his infatuation with his newfound paramour runs, David’s noncommittal, laissez-faire approach to romance becomes increasingly evident, telegraphing an inevitable schism. And judging by the future events we’ve been clued in on, that schism can’t end up being pretty.
While Summer of 85 sets itself up as a blend of Call Me by Your Name and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ozon really only succeeds at evoking the dreamy patina and extreme sensuousness of the former, while his attempts to inject tension or mystery go frustratingly unrealized. The chemistry between Lefebvre and Voisin is too palpable to dismiss as maudlin, surface-level romance, their characters too expertly constructed as congenial foils to one another. In particular, Lefebvre’s embodiment of disillusioned, starry-eyed desire goes beyond the eye-rolling naiveté similar characters invoke, rather earning our fullest sympathy for simply not knowing any better when it comes to the weight of love. (He’s sixteen; why should he?)
But while Ozon excels at exploring the complications of teen sexuality (as he previously did with Young and Beautiful), the sinister expectations he sets for the latter half of the narrative are such that the culmination is, to say the least, underwhelming. This is not to say the plot itself — adapted from Aidan Chambers’s novel Dance on My Grave — is poorly conceived; rather, Ozon’s sequencing and presentation of that plot as a nonlinear thriller (complete with corny bass rumbles during weightier moments) is tremendously ill-advised. Summer of 85 hinges on an eventual tragedy, to be sure, but both the tragedy itself and the manner in which it occurs cast shadows that neither warrant the ominous foreshadowing that riddles the script nor manage to leave a mark that lasts to the final cut-to-black.
While gorgeously composed and boasting two excellent performances, Summer of 85 is a tragic romance that simply overplays its hand.
Summer of 85 – released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema 23rd October.
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