Summer of 85, which was nominated for 12 César Awards, is renowned filmmaker François Ozon's adaptation of Aidan Chamber's 1982 YA novel, Dance on My Grave. Please forget that trivia because the book’s title gives away far too much.
Now, if you are familiar with Ozon's cinematic work over the past decades, much of which, but not all, is homoerotic, you’ll not be surprised at the steaminess of 85. His short, Summer Dress (1996), for instance, is about an uptight young gay man who goes to a beach to tan in the nude, is seduced by an equally young woman, has his clothes stolen, and is forced to bicycle back to where he’s staying in a dress he’s borrowed. Turned on by the female attire, he winds up copulating wildly with his male lover, who is a fan of the Cher song “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
As for See the Sea (1997), this feature has a too memorable scene with a toothbrush; Criminal Lovers (1999) is a highly perverse take on Hansel and Gretel; while in Double Lover (2017), the heroine, who loves her cat, is having an affair with her shrink, who might just be the mean twin of her beau or . . .? Sort of a French Almodóvar, Ozon always surprises and often titillates his audiences while fiercely baring the souls of his creations.
And quite possibly Ozon is bearing his own soul here. He read Dance on My Grave when he was seventeen, and he swears that if he ever made a film, that debut work would be based on this novel. Well, as you see, he finally achieved this vow.
The film’s working-class hero is the insecure, 16-year-old Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), who has an angelic face, a not unattractive torso, plus a fascination with the ending-of-life process. The teen notes, “Death I was interested in; being dead I was not.” Also, “bathtubs always remind me of coffins.” Alex, as he prefers being called, has a thing for sarcophagi.
Well, one day, while in his friend’s borrowed sailboat, Alex encounters a storm, is thrust into the sea, and is rescued by 18-year-old, David (Benjamin Voisin), a dynamically overpowering gent with a streamlined body, uncaged sexiness, plus facial features that more than a few would find irresistible.
Or as the novel notes: “A head of streaming jet-black hair above a broad and handsome face split by a teasing grin atop a tidy body, medium height, with the build and frame that can dress in worn and weather-bleached blue-jean shirt and pants as if in this year’s flashiest marine gear.”
David, who runs his recently deceased father’s sailing gear shop, is also Jewish, which is noted here and there in the novel, but barely in the film. This might just add an engaging air of otherness to the scenario for le public français.
Well, anyway, the rescuer takes the rescued home where David’s mother singlehandedly strips Alex of all of his wet clothing and gets him into a hot bath. A few days later, two teens have become best pals, a relationship that is cemented with a few hot kisses and some physical actions that are tastefully performed off screen. (Remember please that this is a YA story after all.)
For Alex, this is true love. For David, well, this is ….?
It should be noted here, if not earlier, that Summer of 85 begins with Alex in some sort of police custody. What he was arrested for will take quite a while to be revealed, but it all has to do with an oath he’s taken. Happily, Alex, a “gifted” writer and “a credit to his school,” narrates the whole tale in a typed account of his affair, the result of which will decide whether he gets away with community service or a sort of “imprisonment.”
But then love is a kind of imprisonment, isn't it?
Being compared by some to Call Me By Your Name, 85’s first half is a deliciously enthralling romantic romp that leads to disillusionment that leads to hope. And don’t we carry off something from a broken heart, a novel that clicks with us, or a film that is about a survivor?
The Alex character in Dance on My Grave is indeed inspired by an author: “I have a theory that people are nothing more than the sum of the things they think they are. This is not an idea I thought up. I’ll be honest, I got it from Kurt Vonnegut. . . . The idea goes like this: If you think you are a handsome, six-foot-three, blue-eyed genius who writes better songs and sings them better than anyone else in the world, then you tend to behave as if you are a handsome, six-foot-three, etc. etc. . . . . It’s what they believe about themselves that matters, you see. We are what we pretend to be, Vonnegut says, so we better be careful what we pretend to be.”
By the end of Ozon's heartfelt nostalgia trip, Alex certainly becomes careful and more forceful, making one wish that this 85 had actually came out in 1985, a time when it would truly have been groundbreaking and oh! so guiding.