TIFF Review: Director Francois Ozon returns to his roots with Summer of 85

Queer cinema has come through quite well over these past few years. We have had great examples like Call Me By Your Name, Love, Simon and Moonlight; foreign entries like BPM (Beats Per Minute), the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman and BAFTA-winning The Handmaiden and hidden indie gems like Princess Cyd, Beach Rats and God’s Own Country. All of these films have had critical acclaim and they are all arthouse darlings. But, the majority were never meant for commercial appeal.

There have been international filmmakers that have been providing quality queer cinema for many decades. One example is revered Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and another is the acclaimed French filmmaker Francois Ozon. Famous for his witty films about the human condition, whether it is about strength, survival or sexuality; he has made many great films like Swimming Pool, Frantz, Young and Beautiful and Double Lover and By the Grace of God. For his latest film, Ozon has gone back to his roots involving psychosexual tales with Summer of 85. 

Set at seaside resort in 1985 Normandy; Felix Lefebvre stars as Alexis, a young, distant teenager who is in a bit of a standstill in his life. He feels that he has to decide whether he wants to find a job or continue his studies in literature. But things take a sharp turn when he gets into a boat capsizing accident and he gets rescued by enigmatic 18-year old David (Benjamin Voisin).

The two become friends when David invites Alexis to his place; which warms the heart of David’s overeager mother (a delightfully kooky Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi). Over time, the two become more intimate with each other and it all looks like peaches and cream. But their fixation becomes borderline obsessive when Alexis discovers David’s intention; which hints to something more sinister than both could have ever imagined.

From the looks of the synopsis, it certainly looks like something Ozon would venture into. But does Summer of 85 make a worthy entry in his filmography? While the story plays out in a familiar fashion for Ozon, it is still an engaging tale of first love and mystery through the eyes of a teenager.

The film starts off on a very strange note as it frames the romantic story around Alexis’ capture of a crime he committed; making sure the audience is in heels as to what the film is really about. While the film does involve romantic love, Ozon explores the psychological effects of that phase and how it the urges that come from can drive people into malicious actions. A standout scene is where David reveals his true motives in the relationship. It’s truly impactful due to the fact that we have come to care for the characters.

Lefevbre is endearingly taciturn in the first half of the film. But when the complications kick in, his performance yields strong rewards as he is able to capture the simmering anger and compulsion of Alexis vividly. Voisin is alluring, charismatic, and enigmatic as David as he entertains Alexis in ways he would have never dreamed of. Just like Levebre, his performance improves in the second half as his character’s motives are finally revealed – becoming more complacent in the process – and he makes the change feel smooth enough to go along with. The chemistry between the two is convincing, fun to watch and intimate enough to emotionally stir; even when the escalation of cheerful bonhomie is exaggerated.

The most noticeable flaw however is that some elements of the story feel familiar and quite trite; especially when one is familiar with the work of Ozon. But it is said that the film is based on a 35-year old screenplay adaptation of Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers. Obsessive love, gay romance, mystery plots; it is all here. But what makes the film stand out quite a bit is due to the fact that it is all seen through the eyes of a teenager.

The film also takes on a metatextual route as Alexis recounts the story into writing a novel and the use of the “unreliable narrator” device. All the pendulum-motion tone shifts, the alternating moods, heightened camp, the overstated character portrayals, the platitude-esque dialogue (the notion of death gets mentioned a lot) and a strong sense of naivety make thematic sense in that respect. The Super-16 cinematography by Hichame Alaouie captures the bright, beaming mood of the story vividly while the editing by Laure Gardette accentuates the tone shifts with acute sharpness; especially when Ozon abruptly reveals the ever-changing character reveals.

While the film may not be as intricately designed or dramatically impactful as his prior work, Ozon still delivers an engaging tale of romantic love and mystery through the eyes of a teenager with Summer of 85. Recommended.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Summer of 85 screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.

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