When Alexis capsizes his friends boat off the coast of Normandy, he is rescued by an older boy who happens to be sailing by and sees him. This random act of kindness triggers a whirlwind relationship that lasts only six weeks, but will stay with Alexis forever. At 16, his eyes are opened up to a new world of pleasures and emotions he had yet to discover.
Summer of 85 doesn’t break the mold of summer romance movies so much as it acknowledges the usual tropes and elevates them a bit. Yes they go to a carnival, out dancing, and sit around a campfire. Francois Ozon knows that all these things can be cliche, and yet they are completely necessary to tell the story of Alex and David. He shoots their time together in a beautiful, glowing light that burns up the screen (particularly in the 35mm print showing at Music Box in Chicago and the Angelika in NYC). Their feelings are wild and intense, and the camera catches every glance and touch.
We know right from the beginning of the film that the time Alex and David will be together is short. And that it ends in great tragedy. It’s the way that Ozon lets the story unfold that makes their story so compelling. Alex narrates the whole thing as he writes it into a story for his literature professor, Mister Lefevre, and despite knowing much of what happens before we see it on screen, none of those moments lose any of their impact.
There are some interesting insights made in the movie and I don’t know if they come from Ozon or directly from the novel it’s based on (Dance On My Grave by Aidan Chambers). The best one comes at a point in the movie where the relationship has started to turn and we can feel the end is coming. In a bit of narration Alex says “I loved him as much as I understood the word.” I’ve never met a 16 year old who was self-aware enough to acknowledge that idea, but it is certainly true.
At that age you have no idea what love is or what it really means. Alex was rescued by an enigmatic guy who immediately started making plans for their future together and got caught up in the excitement without taking time to really think things through. In this way, he’s a bit like a contestant on The Bachelor who spends a few hours on a super romantic date, having a deep conversation about the future, forgetting that there are 20 other people having the same conversations with the same person.
Ozon and his crew do a fantastic job keeping the look and feel of the film authentic to the time period. At one point I thought maybe I was watching an 80’s movie that just got lost along the way. The costumes are perfect, the hair even more so. And then there’s the music. What a great soundtrack for a movie like this. Heavy on the synths, throw it on and have a dance party on your own. They somehow get away with playing “In Between Days” by The Cure and “Sailing” by Rod Stewart both twice, and it completely works.
One thought I had while watching this relationship unfold is that the only feeling more powerful than love is the fear of losing it. As their time together came to a close, one acts selfishly and the other jealously, too young to understand how their actions effect the others. It’s interesting to see young people in such complicated entanglements and watch them learn and grow.
There’s a lot of morbidity in Summer of 85, but the film never feels weighed down by it. Ozon never lets it linger too long, and keeps the movie from straying too far into the darkness. There are a few scenes that I felt went on a more than they should have, but overall the hour and forty minutes went by like a breezy summer day.
If you’re in Chicago or NYC I can not recommend enough seeing this in 35mm.