After a trio of films that saw François Ozon feeling out the far extremes of his interest and ability — 2016’s monochrome interwar melodrama “Frantz,” the winking De Palma-esque mindfuck “Double Lover,” and last year’s journalistic Catholic priest exposé “By the Grace of God” — the precocious and pétillant “Summer of 85” finds the prolific French auteur circling back to the kind of lurid, playful, and unapologetically queer psychodramas that first made him famous in the late ’90s. But it wouldn’t be right to characterize this stormy coming-of-age story as a return to form, as that would imply some kind of desperate scramble back to the safety of the shore.
In truth, Ozon was never off his game so much as he was simply testing the outer limits of the board. And his 19th feature isn’t a retreat back to the Patricia Highsmith-inflected likes of “See the Sea,” “Criminal Lovers,” and the international breakout “Swimming Pool” so much as a revisitation. Sunny, seductive, and strangely refreshing even when things get dark, “Summer of 85” is the cinematic equivalent of someone going back to their childhood home and seeing it through the bleary eyes of an adult, clouded by memory but also liberated from the teenage myopia that once made every new emotion feel like a matter of life and death.
The scrambled, horny, and surprisingly tender story of a 16-year-old boy who listens to The Cure so much that he’s grown desperate for someone to make him lovesick (a closeted longing not yet complicated by the AIDS epidemic that only factors into this movie as an aftertaste), “Summer of 85” is nothing if not a matter of life and death. Robert Smith’s voice bookends the film — a faithful but thoroughly Ozon-ized adaptation of Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel “Dance on My Grave” — but Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) seems more like a Morrissey stan from the moment we meet him trudging through a juvenile detention center in chains as he rants via voiceover about his morbid obsession. “Mad I may be,” this scuffed cherub shouts at us so passionately that we can hear his internal monologue, “but crazy I am not. Corpses scare me, but what I’m really interested in is death.” He offers to tell us about the one body that scarred his psyche forever, and who are we to say no?
From that rather theatrical introduction we’re spirited back to the beginning of this most fateful summer as the film splinters into two separate timelines, both wending through the idyllic seaside town of Treport. The sunnier of the plot strands finds Alexis talking us through the six weeks that changed his life, beginning with his first encounter with the boy who saved it. Sailing out into a purple-clouded lightning storm in a scene that’s tellingly flushed with the impressionism of a memory, Alexis capsizes and begins to panic before a dreamboat rides to his rescue. “Enter David Gorman,” Alex narrates. “He’s the future corpse.” Well there goes that mystery. Of course, no Ozon movie is ever quite as simple as it seems on the surface.
And the same holds true for the characters who define them — the absurdly (almost violently) telegenic ones most of all. Embodied by newcomer Benjamin Voisin, David Gorman is a cocky denim vision with thick fingers, arrow-like cheekbones, and the bottomless jaw of a cartoon superhero. In a film that sometimes feels like it’s one streak of black eyeliner away from becoming a goth “Call Me by Your Name” (down to a nightclub scene that hinges on a life-altering needle drop, and an ending that carries an unexpected emphasis on certain Jewish traditions), Voisin seems like what might happen if a mad scientist spliced Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer into the kind of impossibly beautiful teenage crush that can make someone feel like they’ll spend the rest of their lives looking for another person they’ll ever need so much.
But as the two boys become inseparably close with alchemic quickness, the pastel-colored story around them grows beady and damp with the paranoia of David slipping through its fingers. Alexis might have a unique fascination with death, but anyone would feel moribund standing next to someone with David’s unbridled lifeforce — with someone who exudes a sense of terminal velocity even when he’s standing still. That terminality proves central to the film’s “present” timeline, in which Alex (his name shortened to match his haircut and his temper) is on trial for whatever happened over the summer, and encouraged by his former writing teacher (“Laurence Anyways” star Melvil Poupaud) to put his memories down in words.
The double-helix plot structure is something of a nuisance, even if it serves a purpose this movie couldn’t live without. While the legal implications of Alex’s situation suffuse his coming-out story with a sense of criminality that reinforces its queerness — that sense made explicit in a daring third act sequence that deliberately echoes Ozon’s 1996 short, “A Summer Dress” — Ozon’s script labors so hard to hide the truth behind David’s death that Alex’s summer threatens to seem less remembered than invented.
It’s a striking contrast to the jejune immediacy of his affair with David, which unfolds across a series of effervescently tense Super 16mm flashbacks that flirt with danger and peak (of course) at the fuzzy neon carnival where David fights off a few local bullies and dances to Bananarama. Did the entire world feel like “Adventureland” back then? But the Proustian intensity of the film’s period setting is inseparable from its increasingly pronounced subjectivity. This isn’t a story about first love as it’s lived so much as one about first love as it lives on; a story about the struggle to hold onto what makes you happy in a world that refuses to let some people keep it. If “Summer of 85” is spread too thin to contain the quicksilver romance at its center, Ozon knows full well that the spillover is what’s going to fuel Alex’s self-invention. No matter how far you go, there are certain things you always take with you — at this point in Ozon’s elastic career, “Summer of 85” is rewarding proof of that.
Originally due to premiere at Cannes before the festival was canceled because of COVID-19, “Summer of 85” had its North American premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Music Box Films will release it in the United States.