François Ozon returns to screens with Summer of ’85, based on Aidan Chambers’ novel Dance on My Grave. A sumptuously shot, nostalgic bildungsroman framed by a bitttersweet darkness, the film deploys many well-worn tropes of the coming of age drama. But they’re executed with such a light, self-aware confidence that Summer of ’85 has wit, warmth and charm to spare.
It’s the mid 1980s and 16-year-old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) has the summer and his whole life ahead of him. A cold open in which a bedraggled Alex – just arrested and dragged through the police station – declares his fascination with death is cut short with a flashback set to the strains of The Cure’s Inbetween Days. Setting out from the beach on his friend’s small sailing boat, he falls asleep only to wake up in the midst of the storm. His boat capsizes, but he’s rescued by the very dashing and confident David (Benjamin Voisin), aged 18 years and one month, posed with all the swagger and allure of a Byronic hero.
The setup is pure, distilled melodrama with the pathetic fallacy of the storm clouds, Alex’s distress and the ravishing energy of David’s heroic open-shirted stance. Save for some iffy green-screen work, the scene has all the force and sensational intensity of classic paperback romance. In fact, even the shots using obvious rear-screen projection are reminiscent of classic Hollywood cinema of the type that Joan Fontaine and Bette Davis built careers on.
The flashback structure, told through Alex’s voiceover narration, further adds to the sensation of classic cinema creating a quite pleasing juxtaposition with the usually more straightforward narrative of the coming of age film. But more than that, Alex’s unreliable narration creates a subtle tension throughout the film that almost pushes Summer of ’85 into the thriller genre, with a mystery at its centre that is gradually unfurled as David and Alex’s more-than-friendship blossoms.
If the film’s story is drawn from the bildungsroman tradition and its structure from the thriller and melodrama, then its aesthetics are pure, head over heels nostalgia. Here, Ozon captures the intensity of that full, intoxicating flush of first love. Shooting on 16mm film, cinematographer Hichame Alaouie slathers a soft grain and warm, golden light across the frame, beautifully invoking the film’s sense of wistful memory. Meanwhile, as Alex’s emotions rise, the camera frequently pushes into its subjects from a long lens, intensifying our own feelings as the frame becomes swallowed up by Alex and David’s heady connection.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm