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Set on the rocky shores of a Normandy beach town, Francois Ozon’s Summer of 85 (★★★★☆) signals a clear warning from the start that whatever friendship or romance blossoms between teens Alexis and David, it won’t end well for at least one of them. Adapting British author Aidan Chambers’ young-adult novel Dance on My Grave, published in 1982, Ozon unfurls their love story with the sinister overtones of a deadly mystery.
Historically speaking, something deadly was coming for them and bright young things like the boys in the original novel, who would have had no concept of HIV and AIDS looming at the dawn of the decade. By shifting the story’s date forward just a few years, Ozon adds a subtext of danger that the film never has to acknowledge.
Hindsight does the work for him, as we gradually understand that Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) and David (Benjamin Voisin) each may pose grave danger to the other, or to himself. But who will strike the first blow?
Alexis, the younger of the two, appears to be struck first, literally and figuratively, introduced with his angelic face haggard and bruised. The film bounces between before and after the event that led him to this fall from grace, and usually his beaten face is our first, best clue as to which we’re watching. Anchoring the shifting narrative, Lefebvre’s brilliant performance as Alexis captures the anger churning beneath the boy’s still waters, as well as the innocence that draws David to him, after the older, more gregarious teen rescues Alexis and his capsized sailboat in a storm.
From their chance meeting on choppy seas, to riding rollercoasters at a beachside amusement park, and tripping through the countryside on the back of David’s motorcycle, theirs is a practically picture-perfect teenage summer. Alexis, known as Alex to his new friend, even gets a job in the marine and boating shop run by David’s exceedingly supportive single mom, Mrs. Gorman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).
Ozon, a master at these summertime pas de deux (see Swimming Pool), has fun filling out Alex and David’s world with the trappings of nostalgia that can compress an all-consuming affair into a season, or a school year. Alex and David bond to the beats of Bananarama and The Cure. A scene of the pair getting lost in each other’s eyes as they pogo on a crowded dance floor to French New-Wave is the stuff young lovers dream about while doodling in their notebooks. “I wanted to spend every second of my life with him,” Alex narrates over a luminous shot of the two leaping from David’s sailboat into the sunset-dappled sea.
For all the natural beauty of the surroundings, and the often-undressed actors, Ozon never truly allows us to let down our guard. David’s mother is too insistent that Alex be careful with her son. Then, an attractive young woman enters the picture, English tourist Kate (Philippine Velga), whose interest in David seems to be reciprocated. And, of course, there’s Alex’s bloody face, and a police investigation, and Alex’s abiding fascination with death. Danger will claim its due, and for the ones who emerge unbowed, if not unscathed, other dangers loom on the horizon.
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