François Ozon’s Summer of ‘85 — which adapts the YA novel Dance on My Grave, by Aidan Chambers — is moving but contained affair, aflush with overwhelming feeling but also distant from that feeling, probing but not always revealing, sensuous and charismatic but not always easy to like. It’s a gay teen romance out of France, equal parts sun-drenched coastal pas de deux between an unlikely pair of friends and despairing exploration of young loss, with all of it hinging on a promise between these men that’s proven to be miscomprehended. It’s a story which, to really dig out the minutiae of feeling, winds up splitting itself in half, before-and-after style, with the crucial pivot point being the grave-gallivanting promised by the title of the Chambers novel. How we get there, what it all means, what it feels like to revisit in retrospect: this is the emotive strand that pulls us forward through Ozon’s movie, to say nothing of these men’s lives.
There is, understandably, a world of difference between that before and after. Summer of 85 starts with the proclamations of an inexplicably gloomy young man — OK, a 16-year-old — named Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), who tells us up front that he’s obsessed with death. Not corpses, not gore, but death itself. “Bathtubs already remind me of coffins,” he tells us — a strange sentiment from such a bright, hopeful face as his. But it’s also a tip of the hat to Ozon’s tone throughout this movie, which allows its young hero to toe the line of morose self-pity of youth without dripping into parody. That wouldn’t work in this story, in which Alexis will be forced to confront genuine loss — and, to make it worse, face some unintended consequences of that loss.
I suppose that in a film based on a book titled Dance on My Grave, a body must necessarily get buried. The film makes no secret of who that is: David (Benjamin Voisin), Alexis’s friend and first love. In one half of the film, Alexis, implicated in that death, is reckoning with it, or rather being reckoned with: people are trying to make sense of something he does, and the movie, it seems, takes us backward in order to do precisely the same.
It takes us back to the heat of that summer; New Order on the soundtrack is but one of the nods to the moment confirming that the ‘85 of the title is to be taken literally, but also as a marker of distance: a sense of retrospective romanticizing adds the already-lush romance of the story. David saves Alexis during a mishap at sea; they instantly become inseparable. What happens is what’s expected to happen — what you’d want to happen, with all the comfort and security of affection, the utter safety of it, playing out onscreen between these actors with natural grace.
Yet it’s often the stuff surrounding their ties to each other that proves even richer, more daring. We’re strung along by the utter mystery of whatever it is that earns David the status of a “future corpse,” in Alexis’s telling; but we’re compelled, too, by the tensions in their lives: the teacher encouraging Alexis to become a writer despite the working-class hyperfocus of his father, for example, or the efforts, in the film’s other half, of an investigator to make it all make sense. There’s a version of this film that would feel awkward for so much of its highs being undercut by such despairing lows. But Ozon’s attention to the naturalness of it all — the easy rhythms of conversation, the unremarkable fact of a morning boner — makes the extremes feel all the more plausible.
And the feeling all the more tangible, even as Alexis’s reflective obsession with death feels overdone, distracting. Lefebvre and Voisin are more than charismatic: They’re seamless, casual, with only those nods to teenage moroseness pulling us sideways, not because they’re dark, but because the darkness lacks for a philosophical center, despite its gestures toward that fact. This is intentional: Alexi is a teenager. But it’s in tension with Ozon’s actual tone; its richer, wiser, middle-aged dashes of insight, which come out less in what’s felt and said than in what each scene makes of what’s felt and said.
If not for its grim departures from the feverish affections of gay youth, Summer of 85 might be easily mistaken for a Call Me By Your Name hand-me-down. The flirtations, the dance scenes, the sculpturally perfect bodies and minds of its central pair, so brazen with intimacy, so robust with ideas about art — it is all pleasurably (numbingly) familiar. Much of it would feel interchangeably beautiful with that other film if not for Ozon’s finer, less exoticizing hand with the men’s surroundings. Ozon and his actors are less keen to show off, and the movie is better for it. The lovely sparks of interest generated by the film’s extended cast help — especially the heartbreaking Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, as David’s mother, whose eyes are an expressive wonder, and Melvil Poupaud as the teacher Lefebvre. The sympathies are abundant and warm.
But they’re only half of the story. The grim stuff, well, it does make a difference. Ozon’s credible handling of the Summer of 85’s twined stories invisibly guides us through the film’s romantic departures and quiet crises. You really do start to wonder where it’s all going — a fine trick of the storytelling on display since, long before the end, you realize: you already know.