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Summer of 85, François Ozon 6
Courtesy of Curzon

Summer of 85: a queer coming-of-age romance soaked in sex, sun, and tragedy

François Ozon’s latest offering is a sunny, sad gay romance that’s been compared to Call Me By Your Name – but don’t be fooled

In an alternate reality, François Ozon’s Summer of 85 premiered at Cannes, won the Palme d’Or, and kickstarted the Summer of Ozon. As it is, the French auteur’s 19th film – that’s 19 in 22 years, all with a writing credit – was confirmed by Thierry Fremaux to have been officially selected for the cancelled festival. “I was very sad not go to Cannes,” Ozon tells me over Zoom. “Not for me, but for the young actors, because it would have been their first time. All young actors dream of Cannes. But Thierry said he’ll invite us next year. We’ll be back.”

A festival regular throughout his career, Ozon has seemingly tackled every genre and taboo. The 52-year-old director’s debut feature, Sitcom, was an orgy of incest, murder, and sadomasochism. Criminal Lovers delighted in cannibalism, 8 Women transformed grief into musical farce, and Young and Beautiful followed a teen girl so good in bed she accidentally kills a man by riding him too intensely. More recently, L’Amant Double opened with a match cut of a vagina and a tearful eyelid, while last year’s By the Grace of God was nearly blocked from release due to a lawsuit from a Catholic priest.

So is Summer of 85 really, as the posters suggest, a sweet, sunny, coming-of-age romance between two handsome boys who are so photogenic it hurts? Well, sort of. The film is an intoxicating, heartfelt ode to young love, and almost certainly the cinematic highlight of the Autumn of 20. But it’s also a suspenseful, non-chronological psychodrama from an enfant terrible who cannot make an ordinary film, even if he tried. For 100 minutes, the Ozon touch is as touching as ever.

Before the title credits, 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) is in handcuffs, in a cell, facing criminal charges related to the death of 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin). Unfolding in colourful flashbacks, the subsequent narrative leaves viewers guessing as to how a blissful meet-cute in Normandy could turn into what looks like the next season of Serial. “What interests me is Death with a capital D,” Alex whispers via voiceover. “If you don’t want to hear about a corpse I knew when it was alive, if you don’t want to know what happened between him and me, and how he became a corpse, you’d better stop right here.” This is, then, not Ozon’s Love, Simon.

When Ozon was Alex’s age, he was similarly fascinated by Death with a capital D. “For my generation, the 80s were complex and difficult, because we were discovering our own sexuality, and, at the same time, AIDS arrived,” Ozon says. “Many people were obsessed with the link between death and sex, because we were afraid of the disease. I saw many young people dying around me. It was a shock to discover your sexuality at the same time.”

Ozon based the script on Adrian Chambers’ 1982 YA novel Dance on my Grave. Although Chambers, a British author, set the story in Southend, it was a cult hit in France. “I was 17 in 85,” Ozon recalls. “People read the book like an allegory for AIDS, and the fact you die very young when you’re gay.” He and a friend attempted an adaptation when they were 18. “I was looking for it at home, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t know if it was good or not. But I remember, I made it chronological. Then I reread the book two years ago and decided to keep the puzzle structure, with the flashbacks and flash-forwards, and to have this feeling Alex is constructing his own story.”

As Ozon has evolved into a Director with a capital D, he considers himself to be more capable of writing teen characters than when he was a teen himself. “I have the right distance now to tell the story, because I’m an adult, I’m more mature, and I understand all these complex feelings. I have a lot of tenderness for these young boys.” He adds, “If I’d done it in the 80s, it would have been more violent.”

Ozon’s morbid obsession with the seaside has long been documented – MOMA even ran a series called “Ozon at the Beach”. In See the Sea, Under the Sand and Time to Leave, excursions to scenic waterfronts are catalysts for death; when Alex capsizes on a boat, though, he’s rescued by a beautiful stranger, David, and a relationship ensues. David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) compliments Alex’s penis in her version of small talk, the two boys make out on wild nights out, and you’re swept away by the passions of this dizzying love affair. But suddenly, you remember: oh, right, one’s going to court, the other’s going to be a corpse.

“For my generation, the 80s were complex and difficult, because we were discovering our own sexuality, and, at the same time, AIDS arrived. Many people were obsessed with the link between death and sex, because we were afraid of the disease” – François Ozon

In other words, the film can be dark, gloomy and angsty one minute, then bright and joyous in the next. Hence the relevance of a similarly flexible band like The Cure. Over the opening credits is “In Between Days”, the bouncy pop single from The Head in the Door. “It’s a song I love, because I was very gothic at the time,” Ozon explains. “I was in love with English New Wave, so it was important to have The Cure.

“It’s funny. At first, the title was Summer of 84. I wrote a big letter – a fan letter! – to Robert Smith, asking for the rights, and he said, ‘Sorry, we can’t give it to you because the song was released in 1985.’” In July last year, the film was officially announced as Summer of 84. “So we changed the title. I sent him the trailer, and he said, ‘OK, you can have the song.’”

Bridging the extreme mood swings is a melancholic, synth-y score by Jean-Benoît Dunckel of the French duo Air. Otherwise, the soundtrack is packed with radio hits of the 80s – the first half of the decade, anyway. One of them was supposed to be “This Charming Man” by The Smiths. “I tried! The singer – what’s his name? – Morrissey was OK, but the guitarist (Johnny Marr) was very difficult. He asked for so much money! So in place of ‘This Charming Man’, I put in ‘Cruel Summer’ by Bananarama. So it was all OK.”

When Bananarama plays, Alex and David are idly purchasing beachwear like their characters are in an Éric Rohmer romcom, not an Ozon mystery-thriller. To develop their Rohmer-worthy chemistry, Lefebvre and Voisin spent six months before the shoot hanging out and watching movies recommended by Ozon, such as Grease (“I wanted the spirit of American movies I saw when I was a teenager”) and My Own Private Idaho (“I wanted them to have the same kind of relationship as River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves”).

“My film is a universal love story. At the end, you don’t care that it’s between two boys. It could be a love story between two girls, or a boy and a girl” – François Ozon

During a showstopping tête-à-tête, David bursts into tears; the script didn’t ask for it but Voisin couldn’t stop his physical reaction. “All the actors cry with me,” Ozon jokes. “No, what David says in that scene is very cruel to Alex, but it’s moving because he’s lying to himself. You can interpret his tears as you want.” An earlier cut of the film was more overtly humorous; in the final version, Alex spends lengthy sessions wallowing in deep depression. “I realised the comedy didn’t work. I showed the film to friends who said, ‘We don’t want to laugh at these moments. We are with Alex.’ So you can smile a little bit, but you have to be with Alex.”

The two leads, who are relative newcomers, now have the Ozon bump. In the past, Ozon has discovered new faces – he gave Ludivine Sagnier, Paula Beer, and Marine Vacth their first major roles – and transformed them into bankable arthouse superstars. Otherwise, he’s an actor’s director, comfortable with bossing about the big hitters of French cinema: Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling (four times!), Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeanne Moreau, Romain Duris and Danielle Darrieux. When Timothée Chalamet was asked on French TV to name a director he’s dying to work with, he turned to the camera and exclaimed, “François Ozon, si tu m’entends!”

As Ozon didn’t reread Dance on My Grave until 2018, Call Me By Your Name mania was already in its second wave. However, he rejects any comparisons. “(Call Me By Your Name) is considered very arty in France, and I wanted to make a commercial movie for young people. For the actors, it was good to know that American stars weren’t afraid to play those kind of parts, but the films are very different. My film is a universal love story. At the end, you don’t care that it’s between two boys. It could be a love story between two girls, or a boy and a girl. That’s what I enjoyed in the book, and that’s what touched me.

“When you see the success in France with Summer of ’85, it comes from all these young girls identifying themselves with the characters.” Despite the pandemic, the film hit French theatres in July. “Many girls are fans of Félix and Benjamin. They’ve become icons for young people. It was touching to meet young girls and gay boys who said, ‘This film helped me to understand things.’ They saw the film many times! It’s funny; my film before, By the Grace of God, was more for old people.” He laughs. “This time I have a new generation.”

On the topic of LGBTQ+ films for young audiences, Love, Simon enters the conversation. “I really enjoyed it,” Ozon says. “It was very funny. When Hollywood decides to make a commercial movie, it’s well done. It’s important to have this kind of representation, too. But it’s too sucrefor me.” Scripts like Love, Simon used to be sent to Ozon; American producers eventually stopped when they realised he had no interest in director-for-hire gigs.

As my Zoom background is a still of my favourite Ozon film, In the House, Ozon tells me that a US remake was proposed then fell apart. “The film is too perverse and twisted for the American market. It’s funny, when I reread Dance on my Grave, I realised that many parts of the book were in my films. The relationship with the teacher is in In the House. The crossdressing is in The New Girlfriend and A Summer Dress. The graves and cemeteries are in Frantz. The book infused my life.”

In the UK, Ozon is one a handful of European directors, like Pedro Almodóvar, who can guarantee reliable business whenever a new film is released. Still, Ozon peppers the interview with questions about whether everything translates. Will people in England find the climactic Rod Stewart scene ridiculous? No, I say. Do people in England know about La Boum? Only the ones with too much spare time, I say. The 1980 French comedy was the American Pie of its time and is referenced in a nightclub sequence. “After La Boum, everyone in France listened to their own headphones at parties. I realised during the editing how important the scene is: Alex and David don’t dance to the same music, and that’s the problem with their love story.”

By chance, Sophie Marceau, the star of La Boum, will lead Ozon’s next film, Tout s'est bien passé. Somehow, he shot it during the summer – which really puts to shame whatever sourdough you were proud of baking back then. “It was a dream because Sophie Marceau was the idol of my youth. It’s very different. It’s more ‘drama’ and in the spirit of By the Grace of God.”

If Ozon’s known for one film, it’s probably Swimming Pool, an erotic thriller in which a middle-aged novelist, played by Charlotte Rampling, finds a muse in a bikini-clad, sexually open teenager; the POV belongs entirely to the older writer figure, as it does in In the House. Summer of 85, in that regard, is a first for Ozon, as we feel his presence in 16-year-old Alex, not a character on the side offering a meta commentary. Even the cinematography is recreating the past. “16mm is what I would use for my early short films,” he says. “Digital images are flat. The colours of 16mm are less sharp but more erotic.”

Still, Alex is an author himself, and the flashbacks are doubly powerful if viewed as Ozon revisiting his own memories. I promise you this is not a spoiler: in the final moments, Alex is on a boat and the film cuts to credits. Ozon could have used “Sinking”, the sinister closing song on The Cure’s The Head on the Door; instead, he returns to the boisterous, lyrically wistful pop of track one, “In Between Days”. Alex’s accompanying line of dialogue: “The only important thing is that somehow we all escape our history.”

“It’s the last line of the book and I really loved it,” Ozon explains. “It’s especially important when you’re living in a difficult social background or living in a very conservative family to escape your history, and find your own path. It’s something many gays can understand, I think.” Summer of 85 is the kind of film, the director continues, he wish existed for himself in 1985.

“I was thinking: what would a teenager of 17 love to have seen on screen at that time? Because all the love stories at that time, especially gay love stories, were very dark. They were always about guilt and were very dramatic. So I had an idea: I will make a teen movie for young people, and it will give hope to young people.”

Summer of 85 is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on October 23