French director François Ozon (Double Lover, 8 Women) tends to look at genre situations from their own point of view, using their conventions to form ironic, stylized variations on familiar material. Accordingly, he favors self-conscious artifice and sheer storytelling verve over behavioral plausibility, tendencies that are plenty clear in his 2012 feature In The House, in which a 16-year-old kid draws his teacher into an ever-expanding web of voyeuristic yarns. His latest, Summer Of 85, likewise uses a teenager’s burgeoning literary gifts to frame its narrative—but the context, a tragic tale of first love off the French coast of Normandy, is less sinister, and ultimately rather earnest. This emotional forthrightness is likely in keeping with Ozon’s source material (a 1982 YA novel by British author Aidan Chambers), but it’s a fitful match for his direction, which ends up keeping this intensely personal story at a stilted, ironic remove.
The romance in question occurs between 16-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a working-class kid whose teacher (Melvil Poupaud) is encouraging him to write, and David (Benjamin Voisin), a slightly older boy whose mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) owns an upscale store for fishing and boating goods. From the get-go, though, we learn that in the film’s nominal present, David is dead and Alexis has been arrested for some sort of crime. What we see of their relationship therefore occurs in flashback, framed by the latter’s narration and writing. Apart from isolated details—David’s ripe-for-psychoanalysis habit of whipping out his pocket knife/comb; a club scene that gives the film its main theme, Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”—the arc of their relationship is familiar enough, and swiftly dealt with. David comes on to Alexis confidently. Despite identifying a number of red flags, Alexis reciprocates. David eventually gets bored and drops him unceremoniously. The film’s narrative suspense therefore comes from wondering how David eventually dies, and what crime Alexis commits.
However contrived, the answer to the latter, at least, is not uninteresting. (Unless one is already familiar with Chambers’ novel, whose title constitutes a spoiler, it’s all but impossible to guess at the film’s start.) The main issue is that both questions are basically answered with about 40 minutes to go, which leaves the film spinning its wheels until its full-circle conclusion. In the latter half, Ozon includes a goofy, cross-dressing subplot that references his playful 1996 short A Summer Dress, and also fills in some heretofore neglected detail regarding Alexis’ home situation—particularly about how his working-class folks might respond to his sexuality. But both aspects only end up accentuating the film’s confused qualities, making one wish that Ozon had either pushed the occasional outrageousness a bit further, or chosen to make his film more behaviorally coherent. Likewise, a number of scenes seem to actively invite comparison to Call Me By Your Name, which does Summer Of 85 no favors regarding its energetic, but wispy evocation of first love.
The auto-fiction frame of Summer Of 85 does provide some justification for all this. One could plausibly argue that the film’s highly variable tones, textures, and characterizations all express its true subject: how each of us view our lives as a narrative and construct fictions of the people we encounter—especially those we love. Still, thematic coherence does not a film make. In the end, Summer Of 85 is about the idea of romance more than it is an actual romance, and on that level it succeeds almost too well, leaving one wishing for something more substantial.