François Ozon’s Summer of 85 opens on a Sunset Boulevard riff before segueing into a teen movie riff: The Cure’s “In Between Days” plays over the foreground, a crane shot swoops and rises over a sun-splashed beach abutting a seaside town, and the protagonist, Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), bikes into frame, alive, vibrant and very much not in the custody of a solemn gendarme. The stark contrast struck between these moments in Ozon’s introduction almost feels like a constitutionally French punchline, sardonic in execution but not without warmth and sympathy for Alexis and what’s to come for him. Young love is beautiful. Young love is painful. Young love is a first step toward dancing on a grave in the middle of the night. So it goes.
Alexis is on the lookout for fun and enjoyment as summer wraps the Normandy coast in its balmy embrace. He’s 16. Might as well have a good time. “Capsize the boat” probably isn’t on his list of “good time” activities, but capsize his boat he does as weather rolls in. Things look bleak. Then, a knight in shining armor arrives to his aid, though in fairness his armor is an unbuttoned shirt and swim trunks: David (Benjamin Voisin), young like Alexis but not quite as young, and inarguably a better sailor. Alexis is rescued. He’s also intrigued, as David is with him. They pal around a bit, trade thoughts on life as one expects French youths to—meaning lots of juvenile philosophizing—and then they fall in love. Or at least Alexis does.
Summer ‘21 is a budding season of takes on Call Me by Your Name, beginning with Pixar’s Luca and continuing on with Summer of 85. The latter, of course, much more closely relates with Luca Guadagnino’s film than the former, being a film about romantic rather than platonic love between its leads. Unlike Call Me by Your Name, a picture that’s far too gentle for its own good, Summer of 85 runs on undercurrents of peril that Ozon never permits to go unnoticed. David’s age isn’t vastly greater than Alexis’, just enough to be worth mentioning. It’s his approach to life and especially love that’s forbidding, a “me first” world view in conflict with just how easily, how freely, he’s capable of expressing love.
David is gorgeous. His is the kind of face anyone might fall for with a glance, and if a glance won’t do, then his charm, so natural, easy and unconditional, will. Alexis’ instant attraction to him, which starts at the surface and bores beneath with zero resistance, is a joy to observe, but it’s a setup to a level of spiritual agony he’s tragically unprepared for. In his defense, no one’s ever really prepared for the highest highs and subterranean lows of loving someone who loves you back only as long as their attention span allows them. But 16-year-olds have a tendency to interpret their world through the rosiest of glasses. Alexis loves David; David, therefore, must love Alexis back.
The calculus blows up in Alexis’ face, and Ozon is there to capture in full the uncertainty David’s sharp rejection stirs in him. Summer of 85 flips back and forth between the before and the after of their relationship established in Ozon’s preamble: The timeline, reorganized in the cut by editor Laure Gardette, functions as a sliding scale of emotional growth, which necessitates suffering, and there’s really nothing that screams “French” like a movie about intense passion that inflicts the worst lovesickness on its lead for development’s sake. Lefebvre plays Alexis with a coltish confidence. He’s more or less self-assured, but his self-assurance is in part a front, a mask he wears to look more self-actualized than he is.
It takes David’s authentic worldliness to show Alexis just how little he’s experienced in his short time on Earth, and it takes his flightiness for Alexis to realize how far he has to go before he’s mature enough to know genuine love when he sees it. Similar to Call Me by Your Name, Summer of 85 suggests that the heartbreak of first love is an unavoidable step through teenhood. The hurt erases neither our feelings for or our memories of those shimmering, golden days of infatuation. In fact the hurt throws those positive sensations into sharp relief and lets us appreciate them more. But Summer of 85 understands the risks of giving your love to another, and plays those risks to a shocking and inevitable conclusion. Ozon’s film grafts aesthetic pleasures with danger, and gets closer to the core of teenage romance as a payoff.
Director: François Ozon
Writer: François Ozon, Aidan Chambers (novel)
Starring: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.