Gorgeous bodies, clever self-consciousness give a lift to ‘Summer of ’85’

Figuring out which eighties pop star Benjamin Voisin reminded me of kept me distracted when Summer of ’85 got lumpy. Roland Orzabal? Charlie Sexton? Andrew Ridgeley? With his swollen insolent mouth, porcelain cheekbones, and ridiculous hair, Voisin incarnates an era of fashion that threatens to slink into obsolescence but never does. François Ozon’s latest film stars Félix Lefebvre as Alexis, a sixteen-year-old boasting his own fabulous blond locks who spends a heady few weeks as the object of desire, employee, and lover of Voison’s David.

Why Ozon set his film in 1985 is a question that goes unanswered. Harlequin-colored shorts, pouffy shirts from the latest J’ran J’ran video, and snippets of Bananarama and The Cure aside, Summer of ’85 could’ve taken place in 1995 or 1975 or even 2015. As Alexis’ voice-over clarifies, though, the sequence of events consist of memories recollected in sorrow. Ozon, with his usual flair for crisp editing, sets the stakes in minutes. In the coastal town of Treport, the closeted Alexis takes a friend’s skiff out. He awakens from a nap minutes before a storm blows in. His boat capsizes. Coming to his rescue is the slightly older beloved. “Enter David Gorman,” Alex narrates. “He’s the future corpse.”

To remind audiences that one of its principal characters has the angel of death hovering over his shoulder risks deflating the film, but Ozon counts on our collective gasps and sighs as Hichame Alaouié’s camera ravishes those sun-kissed bodies. I wish these dudes didn’t sport such wonderful abs; guys worked out during the Mitterand era but not to this extent. Within twenty-four hours David has charmed Alexis and his mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, a dead ringer for Jacqueline Bisset), landed a job at her store, and kicked off a romance whose intensity matches the pop soundtrack and is just as real. As Alexis’ voice-over insists, with the force of a Sophoclean chorus, this perfection will crumble. Shooting these flashbacks in Super 16mm adds to the sense of unreality, most notably in a carnival montage almost impressive in the firmness with which it treats a Ferris wheel, shootin’ gallery, and cotton candy as if we hadn’t seen them in dozens of other teen romances.

Well, to quote another Cure classic, daylight licks Alexis into shape. An equal opportunity seducer, David beds an English au pair (Philippine Velge) whose command of French surpasses Alexis’ familiarity with the transience of male queer monogamy. Jealousy leads to an act of sudden violence that presages the end of their brief affair. Smothered in shadows that don’t threaten the golden brightness of Lefebvre in closeup, the third act of Summer of ’85 takes risks. A promise David had pressed Alexis into making early in their relationship — whoever dies first must dance on the beloved’s grave — turns into a curse. Characters show no sides, often awkwardly.

Impatient enough to make films in which audiences can figure out the point at which the project stops interesting him, Ozon writes and directs at a pace rivaling Woody Allen’s when the filmmaker still worked. Camp, chic showcases for actresses (Swimming Pool, Potiche), a Great War drama (Frantz), meta-comedies (In the House) — he’s done’em all. Last year’s By the Grace of God, unlike many examples of Serious Ci-ne-mah, put levity in the service of probity. Adapting the gay young adult classic Dance on My Grave, Ozon asks, to what extent do we construct our beloveds — do they exist? A tired question, posed by Shelley and Keats and, well, Robert Smith. Although Alexis is shown to be a writer of talent (Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud, unrecognizable, plays his counselor), his observations don’t rise above the adolescent.

Fine by me. I don’t watch Ozon films for nuance. Bodies in restless motion and characters talking out their dilemmas — those are his virtues. Summer of ’85 would’ve charmed a year ago; at the height of the COVID era, the way Ozon conjures the salt in the air and captures the roundness of nude male buttocks is a tonic. Pleasures of the flesh are deep enough, inspire boldness. Using Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” as a love theme? Man.

GRADE: A-

Portions of this review appeared last fall when Summer of ’85 played at the New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival in fall 2020.

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