Producers: Eric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer   Director: François Ozon   Screenplay: François Ozon   Cast: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvin Poupaud, Philippine Velge, Isabelle Nanty, Laurent Fernandez, Aurore Broutin and Antoine Simoni     Distributor: Music Box Films

Grade: B+

“Summer of 85” (“Été 85”) may be dismissed by some as a minor effort from prolific writer-director François Ozon.  But actually it’s one of his most personal films, reflecting his characteristic themes and embodying his distinctive style.

It’s adapted from Adrian Chambers’ 1982 English novel “Dance on My Grave,” which made such an impact on Ozon when he read it in his teens that even then he dreamed of adapting it to the screen.  The project has now materialized after more than thirty years, and the result demonstrates how much the book informed his work over the years in its emphasis on doomed romance and grief and its audacious blending of tragedy and farce.  The film also exhibits his love for the melodramatic and the flamboyantly Sirkian visual approach he infuses it with. 

Ozon has changed the original British setting to the small Norman coastal town of Le Trėport, where sixteen-year old Alexis Robin (Félix Lefebvre) lives with his dockworker father (Laurent Fernandez) and homebody mother (Isabelle Nanty).  As the film opens, he’s been arrested, and informs us in voiceover that it’s because of the death of his friend David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin).

Their meeting occurs in flashback as the film, edited with finesse by Laure Gardette, continually moves between the present, when Alexis—or Alex, as he comes to call himself in the course of the summer—is pressured by his social worker (Aurore Broutin) to explain what happened before his court date, and the story of the preceding weeks.

Alexis was enjoying the day in a friend’s sailboat when a storm came up and the boat capsized.  He was rescued by David, a handsome eighteen-year old, who took him home, where David’s mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a recent widow, showered him with attention and expressed the hope that he’d become her son’s friend. 

Initially tense, Alexis is soon won over, besotted by David’s charm and lack of inhibition.  (It’s certainly no accident that David’s motorboat is named Calypso, the seducer.)  Before long he’s totally in the older boy’s thrall, even taking a job alongside him and his mother in the family’s seaside shop.  Their shifts behind the counter, however, are entirely secondary to the time they spend together speeding around on David’s motorcycle, going to nightclubs and amusement parks and, most importantly, spending the nights in David’s room. 

While Alexis—now Alex—is completely devoted to David, however, David, as he will finally explain, has a different idea of love.  Much to Alex’s chagrin, he shows considerable interest in a drunken young man he insists on helping during one of their nights out, and when they encounter Kate (Philippine Velge), an au pair vacationing from England, David strikes up a friendship with her that Alex finds threatening.  As the summer winds down, so too does the boys’ relationship, until a fight between them leads to David’s death.  His mother blames Alex.

All of this, as well as what follows—Alex resorts to desperate measures  to see David’s corpse in the morgue (one of the film’s most notable examples of its mixture of tragedy and mordant humor) and to fulfill a promise he’d made to David while they were in the midst of their passion—is narrated by Alex as he types the history of the affair for his advocate, under suggestion from the boy’s teacher Lefėvre (Melvin Poupaud), who sees him as a promising writer (and who, not so coincidentally, also taught David and felt his magnetism).

Some may dismiss “Summer of 85” as just another coming-of-age tale, though one made extraordinarily easy on the eye not just because of the handsome young leads, but its voluptuous visuals.  In cinematographer Hichame Alaouie’s hands the images are lustrous, in the interiors as well as on the sun-drenched beach and azure waves, while the production design by Benoit Baroug and costumes of Pascaline Chavanne are a riot of period color.  The ambience is also captured in the score, the original music by Jean-Benoît Dunckel enhanced by appropriate pop tunes of the time, with Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” taking pride of place at the close.

But if one understands the importance of Chambers’ book not only to Ozon’s life but to his career—reflections of it appear in many of his films—“Summer of 85” becomes an almost quintessential expression of his artistic sensibility, in some respects a summation of it, even though one hopes there will be many more films on his résumé.  It brings together his fascination with the adolescent mind, obsessive love, death and mourning, as well as his stylistic extravagance, both pictorial and dramatic.

That doesn’t mean that one needs a crash course in Ozon’s filmography to appreciate it.  Like all his films, it moves gracefully, alternating moments of tenderness and anger and expertly balancing humor and suspense.   Lefebvre and Voisin both capture the impetuosity of youth while showing the differences between the reserved, timorous Alex and the recklessly hedonistic David, and the supporting cast is excellent, with Tedeschi and Nanty as successful in pointing up the contrast between the two mothers as the leads are in demonstrating that between their sons. Velge is the very personification of Kate’s freewheeling good-heartedness and Poupaud subtly suggests the nuances of M. Lefėvre.

Even if taken as just another gay coming-out story set in a gauzy past, “Summer of 85” would be an exceptional one.  But it’s also a revealing addition to the work of a masterly filmmaker.