By Alex McPherson
Acclaimed French director François Ozon’s newest work, “Summer of 85,” is a nostalgic coming-of-age story that lacks focus and subtlety.
Based on the novel “Dance on My Grave” by Aidan Chambers, the film takes place off the sun-drenched coast of Normandy and follows a reserved, working-class teenager named Alex (Félix Lefebvre), who happens to be fascinated with death. After his boat capsizes, Alex is rescued by the thrill-seeking David (Benjamin Voisin), and the two boys become infatuated with one another. Like most queer love stories in cinema, though, tragedy strikes. Switching back and forth between two separate timelines — one in which Alex is under investigation for a crime; the other presented as a flashback — viewers experience the exhilaration of Alex’s first love, as he recounts the events of those formative weeks.
Despite expert performances, vivid cinematography, and a dreamlike flow, “Summer of 85” remains disappointingly sappy, especially during its latter half. There’s much to appreciate about Ozon’s film, however, and there are specific powerful scenes peppered throughout. This is largely thanks to the chemistry of the two leads, as well as the ways their characters reflect and contrast each other.
16-year-old Alex is unsure whether to remain in school or join the workforce. He’s soft-spoken and, in 18-year-old David’s eyes, failing to capitalize on the exuberance of his youth. Lefebvre convincingly portrays his obsession, childishness, and turbulent emotions in a manner that feels understandable for a boy his age — including a climactic dance sequence that’s fittingly over-the-top.
David, on the other hand, is constantly seeking excitement in his life and grieves the death of his recently passed father. Voisin gives David a flamboyant swagger that’s simultaneously alluring and insecure, conveying a character with additional layers beneath his outgoing demeanor.
“Summer of 85” showcases their bond while bluntly illuminating larger themes, such as the perils of fantasization. The beginning of their relationship, for example, is depicted in a jubilant fashion — the scenery is breathtaking, and the sense of adventure is palpable. These breezy sequences evoke the sense that David and Alex have been literally swept off their feet by each other, throwing their frets to the wayside. There’s a distinctive energy pulsing through these moments, particularly when Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” blares on the soundtrack as David and Alex chart a new course in their lives.
When extreme melodrama comes to the forefront around the halfway point, the previously brisk pacing sags, and “Summer of 85” proves too forceful for its own good. Combined with distracting comedic elements, side characters that are well-acted but underdeveloped, excessive narration, and a conclusion that feels thoroughly Hollywoodized — “Summer of 85” doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.
Indeed, the film’s disjointed narrative structure ultimately detracts from the suspense Ozon tries to create, breaking from the story’s interiority regarding Alex. If “Summer of 85” insists on portraying the highs and lows of Alex’s passion, then why shouldn’t we experience those feelings along with him without knowledge of the future?
A flawed but consistently watchable effort, “Summer of 85” plays to convention when it could have become unforgettable.
“Summer of 85” is a 2020 French film directed by Francois Ozon and starring Felix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voison. Its runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes, and not rated. This film is a selection in Cinema St. Louis’ annual QFest from April 16 to 25. Alex’s Rating: B-.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.