Passionate, emotional, and heartbreaking, Summer of 85 is one of the best gay romance dramas I’ve seen since Call Me By Your Name. Based on Aidan Chambers’ British novel, Dance on My Grave, director and screenwriter François Ozon imprints personal touches and authenticity in adapting the material. This raw snapshot of young love and coming-of-age in 1980’s Normandy uses the beauty of its setting as a gorgeous backdrop for mystery and romance.
Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is an inquisitive young 16 year-old with a budding talent for writing. After borrowing a friend’s boat (The “Tape-Cul”, or “ass slap” in French), it capsizes during a storm. Stranded out at sea, the freewheeling David (Benjamin Voisin) comes to Alexis’s rescue on his own boat, The Calypso. Their chance encounter evolves into something more, as their friendship morphs into a whirlwind romance.
Summer of 85 wouldn’t work on any level without the chemistry between Alexis and David. Félix Lefebrvre and Benjamin Voisin have that extra spark not easy to replicate; it’s a magical aura between the two men. Though Alexis is the main character, David himself is the inciting incident that allows Alexis to grow and flourish. Everything about their relationship is organic to the story, and whether they’re speeding down the road on David’s bike, dancing at a club, or screaming together on a roller coaster, the bond they have is tangible. You can feel it in every scene. When Alexis narrates that their first time together “was the most beautiful night of my life, and it was with David,” the audience truly believes it. Frequently poetic dialogue between them serves to fully form their epic romance.
When they first hang out, David already commits to Alexis by offering to buy an extra helmet for his bike. Destined to travel together, this early gesture already hints at the blossoming love the two will share. Each lead is defined with complexities, dreams, and desires that makes them more than just ‘two twinks in love.’ Alexis has a weird relationship with his father, but his mom is more understanding. His father wants him to get a job instead of going back to school and pursuing his writing. David provides a stable job at his father’s shop, La Marine, so that Alexis can temporarily appease his own dad. Alexis has an obsession with death and burial rites that comes to play more than I initially assumed.
David is flirty with everyone he comes into contact with, and Alexis completely changes the way he views relationships. David rides around topspeed on his motor bike and sails on The Calypso for fun, and he’s still trying to cope with the loss of his father. David has a signature retractable comb that becomes a symbol of his undying adoration for others. In the throes of an embrace, David forces Alexis to make a bizarre promise: whichever one of them dies first, the other must dance on their grave.
The pact between Alexis and David propels us into the other side of the story—a mystery angle prevalent from the very first frame that I won’t spoil here. Each time we cut to this alternate storyline occurring concurrently, an aura of cold distance and sadness permeates. It’s an aching quality of heartbreak and loss that will hit home for anyone who has suffered the trials of grief. Acting stays consistently excellent in both distinct sections. Though the character of Kate (Philippine Velge) isn’t essential in the first half, she becomes a vital channel of therapy later on.
The 80’s setting is nostalgic, but never overly so. Songs like “Cruel Summer” punctuate a vibrant soundtrack. No needle drop is more important to the story than Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”—its accompanying scenes are intensely cathartic and help to complete Alexis’s arc. The song takes on a newfound poignancy when utilized in this context. The destination of Normandy, and its lush beaches and sea, act as gorgeous environments for the action.
A deeply moving meditation on death, a lovely depiction of young love, a rousing examination of mental health, and a stunning love letter to Northern France’s Normandy—Summer of 85 is all of these things and more. The emotionality of the script drove me to tears, with a hopefulness and vitality to the conclusion that left me voraciously satisfied. I yearn for my next chance to revisit my time with Alexis and David, and I look forward to discovering the rest of François Ozon’s vast filmography.
Summer of 85 screened at the Seattle International Film Festival, April 8th – April 18th, 2021.