"Summer of 85" is a rapturously joyful and sad movie that gets right at the heart of what it's like to fall in love for the first time and be vulnerable, with the added twist of being gay. There's been a spate of terrific queer romance films over the last few years, and here's another one.
Directed by François Ozon, who also adapted the novel by Aidan Chambers, the story is set in a French coastal town in the middle of the greatest decade ever to grow up, and no, this is not subject to debate. Things don't look terribly different from their American cinematic counterparts of that time: feathered hair, stone-washed jeans, wearing a jacket when you go out on the town even though it's July.
(I admit, my inner copyeditor glanced at the title and screamed silently, "Where's the apostrophe???" I'm glad I didn't leave it there, though, or I would've missed one of the best coming-of-age romances I've seen in a good while.)
Félix Lefebvre plays Alexis, a shy, intellectually bent 16-year-old on the verge of exploring life. He has to decide if he's going to stay in school to study literature at the behest of his teacher, Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud), who thinks he holds promise as a writer, or get a job and consign himself to a life of drudgery like his dock worker father, (Laurent Fernandez).
His mother (Isabelle Nanty) is vaguely supportive and wants Alexis -- he prefers Alex -- to do whatever makes him happy. Though as a working class woman who's never known anything outside of kitchen toil, she's often mystified by her son's modern, peculiar ways.
While borrowing a friend's sailboat, Alex capsizes as a storm approaches and is rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin), a free-spirited 18-year-old who seems afraid of nothing in this life. He brings the sopping Alex to his home, where his mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) undresses and bathes him. She lost her husband the year before, and she and David run a small marine shop in town, and instantly embraces Alexis as part of the family.
It's clear from the start that Alex and David are completely smitten with each other, though they take some time dancing through the steps of a typical straight friendship before taking to bed. They ride around on David's motorcycle, boat and swim, hit the carnival and get into a fight, go dancing and other stuff that wouldn't be out of place in an '80s teen comedy.
The film is sun-dappled and gorgeously shot (cinematography by Hichame Alaouié), especially our beautiful couple. The physical contrast between them is startling, and deliberately accentuated by Ozon.
Alex is diminutive, lithe, with feathery blond waves and soft feminine features -- David and his mom take to calling him "little bunny." Whereas David is tall, strapping, with a slight snarl to his lip to go with his shark's tooth necklace and wavy dark locks. Together, they look like a rock star (I was reminded of Michael Paré in "Eddie and the Cruisers") dating the girl next door.
The story is told from Alex's perspective, so there's a feeling of being swept up and away by someone older and much more experienced than us. He's fumbling and awkward at emotional intimacy, protesting reticently at first but soon eager to leap into the fire.
David registers as a rebel but also an old soul, the sort of naturally gregarious person who can become friends with someone minutes after meeting them. He makes Alex promise that whoever dies first, the other will dance on their grave.
We know from the start that this tragedy will come to pass, as a framing story has Alex morose and barely able to rise from his bed after David's death. He is also being investigated by the authorities for unnamed crimes related to the death, and Alex is unable or incapable of defending himself.
Eventually his teacher advises Alex to write out his and David's story as a sort of confession/catharsis, so the romance is colored by the act of remembrance. This is interesting in the context of Alex's later discussion with a mutual friend, a British au pair named Kate (Philippine Velge), that young love is often a deceptive illusion, in that we fall in love with the idea of being in love as much as the actual person.
Was David really this way, or is it just how Alex saw him? It's a hypnotizing question to ponder, especially after their relationship starts to suffer inevitable bumps. Underlying all this is an undertone of fear of being exposed, at a time when being gay made you a target for ostracism, or worse.
"Summer of 85" is a wondrously beautiful movie, but also one that isn't afraid to stare at the ugly parts of what being in love is really like. The best onscreen portrait of two men in love I've seen since "Brokeback Mountain," this film feels both timeless and immediate.