'Summer of 85' Portrays Death with Empathy Directed by François Ozon
Starring Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin
Published Jun 22, 2021Summer of 85 is a film about the death of a young gay man, and yet it doesn't come close to perpetuating stereotypes or falling into tropes. We're all tired of "Bury Your Gays" tropes, but here it feels different. Adapted from the novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers, writer-director François Ozon makes the fate of one of the film's characters very clear in the first few minutes, and it's commendable to present it in that way in order to avoid any shock and disbelief. Death in a LGBTQ+ film is not fun; we hope for the same treatment as heterosexual couples in the way our stories are told. But oftentimes, when something is going too well, there's a chance it will end in tragedy. Orzon allows its audience to prepare for what's to come and shows great empathy when it does.
Summer of 85 is a nostalgic fantasy of young love — a fleeting summer romance on the beaches of Normandy that ends in heartbreak. A portrayal that's both honest and excruciating, with feelings of anger and sadness mixed together. As Ozon makes us reflect on our own heartbreaks and experiences with grief, the film ends on a hopeful note because, after all, the end is only another beginning.
Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) has been arrested for dancing on his friend's grave. It's desecration in the eyes of the law and a crime he could face jail time for if he doesn't recount to the court what happened that summer – the summer of 1985. But if his silent tears are any indication, it was a summer of heartbreak. It's a dark way to begin a romance film, especially when Alexis speaks of his interest in death. In one scene, a grey skull sits on the shelf behind him as he looks out the window. Fascinations find a safe place in the mind, but once confronted with death itself, it affects Alexis greatly — especially when death takes someone he loves. The subject of death and our own mortality are macabre themes to begin a film with, but then the scene shifts to a beach in the summer. Bright orange text fills the screen and upbeat music drowns out the grim tone of the first few minutes.
Alexis can't recount that summer in words, so he decides to type it out, and it begins with a trip on the water. He takes to the sea in a boat but suddenly gets caught in a storm and the rough water causes him to capsize. As he yells for help, another boat appears. A young man, David (Benjamin Voisin), comes to his rescue. David is a charming pretty boy and the epitome of '80s style. The hair, the shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Levi jeans, and an earring. Who wouldn't be enamoured with him? Alexis certainly is, whether or not he knows it yet. They decide to spend the day together, with David introducing him as Alex to his mother. Alexis corrects him, but David doesn't hear; he becomes Alex from then on.
In a chance meeting that only lasts six weeks, they get to know each other as they discuss their families and aspirations. David and his doting mother run a shop on the marine and they both hope Alex will work there, his mother stating that his help would possibly allow them to open another location. You begin to wonder if David and Alex's friendship is one built on selfish, ulterior motives, especially when it's only been a day and it feels to be moving at lightning speed. Alex questions if he can trust David, and as Alex rides with him on his motorcycle, he holds onto David tightly. Not only grasping for safety, but also holding onto even the smallest hope that he can trust him. We get our answer eventually, but for a while, they are fast, wild and free. They begin to look at each other with intense desire, their friendship transforming into a love story under the summer sun. Alex admits in narration that he's fallen in love, or at least the closest to it that he's ever felt. He describes their relationship as beautiful and their first moments of intimacy together are kept behind closed doors for them only.
The film shifts back and forth between their relationship and Alex after David's death. In flashbacks, he's processing his depression and grief, but this contrasting tone can be off-putting. The 16mm cinematography is gorgeous in its '80s aesthetic, with some beautiful scenes set to "Sailing" by Rod Steward — but in the flashbacks, the colour palette is much more subdued, and the film's heat fizzles out during these moments. There's also a lot of mystery left behind in regards to David. He seems like he's hiding something, but we never really go beyond surface level with his character.
Both young actors are truly brilliant. There are moments of confrontation between them that are devastating to watch, with the actors breaking their romance's rosy veneer with their emotional and forceful delivery. Lefebvre is especially impressive, as it feels like he's playing two different characters. He completely embodies Alex's depressive spells, as he's sullen as though all light has been extinguished from inside him. But as Alex in the summer scenes, he's full of pure, youthful innocence. He's radiant and excitable with no worry in the world.
Summer of 85 is heavy at times, and you fear for what's to become of Alex, especially as he begins to fantasize about his own death in order to be with David again. But thankfully, Ozon didn't make a tragedy, and the hopefulness that existed when Alex first met David returns. Alex comes to understand how this experience helped him grow and shape him as the person he was perhaps always meant to be. Strength comes from grief, and despite the shadow it casts, there's always a new horizon.
Summer of 85 is out now in theatres. (Music Box)