Intense, sexy and brooding, Summer of 85 (Été 85 in the original French) is François Ozon’s latest look at human relationships of a particularly febrile sort, all set in a seaside town at a time when Ozon himself would have been a teenager.
After a languid and deliberately cinematic tracking shot from the water’s edge right up the beach and onto the promenade, Ozon then gives us a smell of what’s about to play out by introducing us to two friends discussing what they’re going to get up to later that day. Both are handsome lads, and seem to be either standing too close to each other, staring too intently at each other or simply giving off too much animal heat. They’re not gay lovers, just friends, but Ozon has primed us for what comes next.
Out in the sea on his own a bit later, one of the two, Alex (Félix Lefebvre), gets into trouble when he capsizes his boat and is later saved by David, a stranger who happens to be sailing by. David, handsome and athletic, with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a rippling torso, takes Alex, shocked and shivering in his trunks, back to his house for a bit of R&R, where David’s mother helps Alex undress for a restorative hot bath, pausing to remark delightedly on the size of his cock… in a way that is both motherly and inappropriate at the same time.
Somehow pulling off this dextrous feat is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mother, a gossipy sort a world away from VBT’s more usual restrained bourgeois roles. She comes into her own later as the intensity of these early scenes give way to tragedy and the over-sharing matron transforms into something much more vengeful.
Something goes wrong, yes, but we’re not quite sure what it is till near the end of the film, though flash-forwards give us the basics – a tragedy of some sort, David is involved and Alex is being held responsible.
In Ozon’s sensational, much imitated, never bettered 5X2 he teased out a love story in chapters by jumping backwards from the end to the beginning. Here the chronology is more traditional – he’s going forwards in time but he’s doing it similarly in leaps. We get Alex and David’s romance in soundbites, the salty meet-cute, the flirting, the consummation, then the moment when things start to sour, punctuated by a friendship that Alex strikes up with an English au pair (Philippine Velge) he meets on the beach (or, more to the point, who forces herself on him), a friendship that proves catalytic and fateful.
Having done love in chunks, Ozon then does the grief in chunks too, keeping from us the what and the who for as long as he can and giving the film a powerful dramatic tug.
In films like Swimming Pool and In the House and also, to an extent, Frantz, Ozon displayed a fascination for stories about obsessive, often destructive desire, and he does it again here, though it must be said that he seems more at ease with the love than the grief.
It’s also a portrait of a time, the mid-1980s, when a song like The Cure’s In Between Days, which features on the soundtrack, would have been heard everywhere. (Incidentally, Ozon was going to call the film Summer of 84 until The Cure’s Robert Smith pointed out that the song was released in 1985 – Ozon changed the film’s title).
Perhaps best of all is the way Ozon captures the feeling of impermanence in a seaside town in summer, where minds giddy on the smell of sunscreen embark on random relationships that lead into uncharted waters.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021