Friday 23 October 2020

First love, last rites: "Summer of '85"

With Summer of '85, François Ozon successfully queers the pitch of the What I Did On My Holidays coming-of-age movie. Its title appears amid a big, splashy, nostalgia-prompting soundtrack cue (The Cure's "In Between Days") and over shots of a gorgeously sunkissed Normandy beach, but only after a muted prologue in which our boyish teenage hero, shackled in the corridors of a courthouse, confesses to having spent this particular summer putting himself in close proximity to a corpse. We may still be at the seaside geographically; existentially, we're a good deal closer to River's Edge. (Ozon's adapting Dance On My Grave, Aidan Chambers' UK-set young-adult novel of 1982.) So here are the in-between days, separating that from this: Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a skinny blond working-class virgin with a gift for creative writing, is plucked from the sea after a boating mishap by one David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) - not that DG, rather a smiley older Jewish lad with a) a bigger vessel (some indicator of class) and b) an easygoing sexuality. Despite their subsequent bonding - nights out at the cinema and discotheque, rides along the seafront on the back of David's Suzuki, one of those rollercoaster rides that serve as movie shorthand for adolescent turbulence, knots in the stomach - there's a curious sense that Alex is being lured in rather than befriended; Ozon only heightens it by cutting between these bucolic flashbacks and the police investigation that marked summer's end. This once, our hero's narration isn't the basis of a school report, rather a witness statement; not for the first time on this director's CV, desire will go hand-in-hand with danger and death.

That filmography continues to veer all over the place, generically: Summer of '85 follows the sincere period drama of 2016's Frantz, the knowing trash of 2017's L'Amant Double and last year's true-life procedural By the Grace of God. Here, however, Ozon returns to the useful ambiguities of 2012's In the House, still a highpoint in this busiest of careers. Though the vaguely vulpine David seems the more forceful of the film's teen lovers, the opening sets us to wondering what a wormy, suggestible naif such as Alex might be capable of, and whether the account of these events he launches into in that prologue is entirely reliable. Ozon has measured fun with his setting - setting a fairground fistfight to the Europop song that became Laura Branigan's "Self Control" - but his aim is to revisit the very idea of first love, and to address it not as innocent bliss, but more complicated and often less healthy than the movies have traditionally reflected. Is this why Summer of '85 sporadically feels more punishing than pleasurable? Certainly, there's more psychological torment than the distributors have let slip on the poster: one grisly sequence has Alex envisioning the various methods by which he might do himself in. Nothing here will overturn the perception that Ozon has grown to become the neurotic's Almodóvar, too caught up in his own thoughts to paint the town red as he once did. (Cinematographer Hichame Alaouie instead leans into cool maritime blues.) Yet he's matured into a storyteller capable of depth - he coaxes touching work from Isabelle Nanty and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as concerned parents, and from Philippine Velge as the English girl tangled up in the boys' affections - and surprises besides. I wasn't expecting to see Alex having to drag up as he does in the final third for reasons best discovered for yourself, but then I guess that's the Ozon idea of young love: sometimes it carries us far from the straight and narrow, and changes us in ways no-one can fully anticipate.

Summer of '85 opens today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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