First love can feel like a swinging pendulum between life and death. It has that kind of gravity. The highs are glorious, the lows are staggeringly painful. Veteran director Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool) taps into this world of discovery and loss in Summer of ‘85. Adapted from Aidan Chambers’ young adult novel, Dance On My Grave, Ozon’s nod to teenage heartbreak and burdensome memories opens on 18-year-old Alex (Felix Lefebvre in a star-turning role) handcuffed to a bench, waiting his turn to see the judge on a mysterious charge. Someone died– that’s all we know and Alex’s lugubrious narration suggests something macabre occurred.
The rest of the film is told in flashbacks, and after the ominous opening, we cut to a sunbaked seaside town in Normandy in 1985 with The Cure’s “In-Between Days” providing the soundtrack. Alex strolls along the shore, looking to take a boat in the water. After borrowing one, he suddenly finds himself stranded in the middle of the ocean when he’s rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin), a charismatic 18-year-old whose family owns a bait and tackle shop in town. David takes a shaken Alex back to his house where he gives him a pair of clothes and introduces him to his salacious and somewhat inappropriate mother who seems to be enduring a midlife crisis after David’s father’s recent death. Still, they offer Alex a reprieve from his own family, who are painfully blue-collar and restrained.
At first, Alex is taken aback by his new friend’s unyielding attention. David continually showers him with affection, almost aggressively, as he pulls him into his clutches. Soon enough, they descend into an obsessive and lascivious affair. Theirs is the kind of relationship where the existence of your partner makes life worth living. Alex, the dreamer and budding writer, is completely bowled over by the athletic and confident David, but then cracks begin to appear and everything crumbles quickly.
The story doesn’t pull any punches in showing that the love that burns brightest can also extinguish just as quickly. Ozon’s talent as a director shines when he explores Alex and David’s affair with such casual ease while still mining the story for its layered sexuality and innocence. Ozon’s unconscious, laidback approach to a homosexual liaison is probably the main reason this film has been likened to Call Me By Your Name— a bizarre comparison since the movies couldn’t be more different narratively.
The best part of Summer of ‘85 lies in its honesty about the turbulence of adolescence. These actors not only look like teenagers, they behave like them. There are a few comical moments that speak to the absurdity of teen angst, but it’s Ozon’s unusually hefty approach to Alex’s heartbreak which distinguishes his film from others on the same subject. For Ozon, there’s nothing funny about a broken heart. He even utilizes magical realism in a sequence where we actually experience Alex’s fantasies by seeing the different ways he considers committing suicide, before quickly cutting to him lying in bed all day, emotionally paralyzed. The debilitating aftershocks of teenage heartbreak never felt so raw.
The movie isn’t without its pitfalls however. The discordant narrative tends to get lost in the back and forth timeline. At times you lose your footing, wondering if you’re in the past or present. Also the film’s foreboding composition, particularly the opening, seems almost ridiculous when we see how everything plays out. Tonally, the movie is a mishmash (then again so is being a teenager). Still, the narrative’s dive into adolescent sexuality and despair far outweighs its problems. Ultimately, Ozon’s ode to teen romance isn’t about romance at all, but the formation of one’s identity. It’s only when Alex takes his writing seriously and puts pen to paper to tell his story, that he realizes heartbreak isn’t the end of the world, but merely an arduous pathway to discovering himself.