' ' Cinema Romantico: Summer of 85

Monday, August 02, 2021

Summer of 85

In a small boat off the coast of Normandy, teenage Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) takes down the sail and lays out in the sun, a smile on his face. He is jarred awake, though, sometime after by a thunderstorm moving across the water. If this moment becomes the impetus for drama, in which the taller, more assured David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) lives out those qualities by coolly sailing to Alex’s rescue after the latter capsizes, it doubles as a nifty metaphor for the teenage experience where one moment everything is hunky-dory and the next a tempest within is positively raging. It’s the sort of tempest ostensibly coursing through Alex, torn between continuing his studies and going to work, though Lefebvre’s performance and director François Ozon’s tone render the character’s emotional state less like a violent storm than a sun shower, further hindered by a framing device that takes the piss outta the whole thing.

“Summer of 85” is told in parallel narratives. That at-sea rescue occurs in the past, sparking a romantic relationship between Alex and David. If that seems to suggest Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Be Your Name” (2017), Ozon’s film, based on a 1982 novel by Aidan Chambers, is less about sexual awakening than inventing the people we love, to borrow Alex’s phrase. Indeed, the reverie of their teenage dream comes across both deliberately coy in its physicality, staging scenes of their lovemaking like covers of romance and novels, and narratively over-the-top, akin to David’s pronouncements about recklessly speeding on his motorcycle, how going fast is forever out of reach, evoking the gleefully precise bad poetry culled from a teenager’s diary which I mean as a compliment. And that’s just their love affair is, or seem to be anyway, a series of purple diary entries, since the present-day scenes reveal that David is dead, Alex has been implicated in his death in some way, and Alex’s writing teacher (Melvil Poupaud) has encouraged his pupil to explain what happened for the authorities by way of a story, meaning what we are seeing is a story Alex is telling.

This narrative conceit creates a big issue even as it simultaneously writes that issue off, somewhat. If you think David is too good to be true, that’s essentially because he is, as the introductory rescue dramatically denotes. His sizes makes an almost comical counterpoint to the smaller Alex, larger than life, looking a little like if Malcolm of “Malcolm in the Middle” had hooked up with Oliver of “Call Be Your Name.” And if David’s sudden behavioral shift in the middle of the movie seems to come out of nowhere, that’s because it does, the emotional lurches having less to do with him than how Alex views it, growing enraged when an English tourist, Kate (Philippine Velge), comes between them. And Kate proves even less a character than David: first the wedge, then Alex’s co-conspirator, and eventually his momentary oracle. It’s funny, really, when you think about it, hilarious even, the prism through which boys tend to view girls, as either helpful to their self-centered causes or a hindrance to them. In a way, her phoniness is the truest thing in the film.

This suggests Alex as unreliable narrator. But that’s the thing, despite bearing all the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator within the narrative, even briefly raising the possibility of Alex suffering from a mental disorder, all this is taken at face value. True, Alex’s mother (Isabelle Nanty) casts a wary eye toward nearly everything he does, Nanty’s performance deftly evincing her character as mere spectator in her son’s own life, but Alex’s teacher receives the story as gospel. What’s more, while the denouement is littered with increasingly histrionic events, none of them are rendered with any sense of exaggeration or irony, the story of “Summer of 85” growing wilder even as Ozon reins in his aesthetic, creating a fatal contrast. By playing it straight, Ozon is both hanging Lefebvre out to dry, translating his performance as callow and self-absorbed rather than romantically unhinged, and boxing David in as a fantastical projection rather than a person, insultingly transforming his death into nothing more than Alex’s catharsis. 

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